When Pete Worden was passed the microphone at the Breakthrough Starshot announcement, he emphasized that at the heart of the new space exploration initiative is one very real sentiment: This is really cool.
Worden, the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center and currently the executive director of Breakthrough Initiatives, also mentioned another very cool fact as he explained why the nanocraft project meant that Tuesday was “the day that space explorers have dreamed about.” While it may take years before nanocrafts are actually able to reach Alpha Centauri, you actually can start searching for signals from extraterrestrials from your laptop today.
One of that many initiatives that make up Starshot is the effort to look for other civilizations who are doing what we’re doing — beaming lasers into space. The data that is found will be released to the public, both on the Breakthrough Initiatives website and at SETI@home — part of the SETI research center at the University of California, Berkeley. While Breakthrough Initiative continues to develop its own software to search for extraterrestrial life — which it plans on offering to the public as an open source — it has joined forces with SETI@home, which already consists of a platform of 9 million computers around Earth. These computers — which could include your laptop — are considered to form “one of the world’s biggest supercomputers.”
SETI@home is essentially a volunteer computing software system, which uses the “spare resources” on volunteer computers to process information from radio telescopes. This means that, if you download the software, when you’re not using your computer, SETI@home uses the machine’s CPU power, disk space, and network bandwidth to go through signals derived from radio telescopes like the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico or the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia.
“The first thing that your computer does when it wakes up is connect to our computers at Berkeley,” Andrew Siemion, Director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center tells Inverse. “It requests a little piece of data and we call that a work unit. It’s basically just a little bit of raw data that we recorded from a large telescope.”
Then the computer begins to download little pieces of data, while it searches for signals from extraterrestrial intelligence. Through a screensaver and visual application popup, you can see a display of the different signals that the computer is looking for.
“It looks for pulsing signals, it looks for narrow signals, and it does all kinds of transformations on the data to do the research,” Siemion explains. “And then it sends the results of that computation back to our computers at Berkeley, where we record them in a giant database along with the results of hundreds of thousands of other people, for different parts of the sky and for different parts of the radio dial.”
You could even have your smartphone do that work, says Siemion. When the SETI@home initiative started in 1999, the internet — in all of its commercialized, social media wonder — was in its infancy. Today, 78 percent of adults under 30 own a laptop or desktop while 86 percent of the same demographic owns a smartphone. SETI@home software is currently available for Androids, and SETI is currently working on an Apple model.
“We can process data from our telescopes on your cell phones,” says Siemion. “We don’t really think of cellphones as being supercomputers but relative to the kinds of computers we may have had twenty or thirty years ago on our desks, our cell phones are actually more powerful.”
Why institutions like the Breakthrough Initiative and SETI need your help is that they are trying to do a huge amount of computations on a huge amount of very weak signals. These narrow-bandwidth signals do not occur naturally, so the detection of one would be considered evidence of extraterrestrial technology. More computing power means being able to cover greater frequency with more sensitivity — meaning that they’ll have a greater chance of encountering signs of alien life.
Siemion hopes that SETI will have the same success as other volunteer computing initiatives, like Einstein@Home. This volunteer program, which uses computer’s idle time to look for astrophysical signals from spinning neutron stars, has so far resulted in the discovery of fifty new neutron stars.
“SETI@home allows us to search for signals, which we couldn’t search for any other way,” says Siemion. “We haven’t yet detected evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence — otherwise it would have been a very different press conference yesterday. But this absolutely allows us to search for a certain portion of the radio spectrum in ways that we could not do without the vast computer power of all our volunteers.”