SETI@home's search for ET signals from space gets a boost

 By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

16 AUGUST 00 | Berkeley's SETI@home project, scheduled to shut down next year, has a new lease on life thanks to a large gift from The Planetary Society.

The gift will allow the project, which harnesses millions of desktop computers to search for intelligent signals from space, to enhance its scope and increase its search capability to include regions visible only from the southern hemisphere, said project director David Anderson.

The money comes from The Planetary Society through an alliance with Project Voyager, a media startup company founded by Carl Sagan's wife and long-time collaborator, Ann Druyan, and internet entrepreneur Joe Firmage. The society was co-founded by the late Sagan and was the first organization to fund SETI@home.

"This partnership will let millions of people keep participating in SETI@home," Anderson said. "The resources of Project Voyager and The Planetary Society will let us take on exciting new project in the areas of education and community-building."

The funding for SETI@home was announced Aug. 8 by the society at the same time as an unprecedented new strategic alliance between The Planetary Society and the project temporarily named Project Voyager. Project Voyager is a media venture led by Druyan of Carl Sagan Productions and Firmage of IntendChange. Firmage told the San Jose Mercury News that new funding for SETI projects, including SETI@home, would total "several million" dollars.

The new alliance will allow the society to merge the power of space exploration with the tremendous outreach potential of the Internet, expanding its Internet presence and initiating new programs for public participation.

"The Planetary Society's expanded role enables SETI@home to become bigger and better, and continues two decades of society leadership in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence," said Bruce Murray, president of The Planetary Society. "The society has supported SETI continuously since 1980 with a dozen different projects around the world."

SETI@home had been scheduled to end in May 2001, but the increased funding will ensure the program's continuation and extend its operations. Already it is the most powerful computer on Earth, and its progress to date is the largest computation ever done.

The idea of linking computers in a global network to analyze radio data from space originated with David Gedye, a Berkeley computer science graduate and a former student of Anderson, along with Craig Kasnoff and astronomer Woody Sullivan. Four years ago, with $100,000 from The Planetary Society, in cooperation with Paramount Pictures, Anderson and his colleagues at Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory began developing the software for the distributed computer project.

The public first got a crack at the software in May of 1999. Since then, 2.2 million people have signed up and downloaded the software. The data they analyze comes from a radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, which scans the sky daily and sends the radio data back to Berkeley. There, it is broken up into chunks and delivered to home computers for analysis. SETI@home chief scientist Dan Werthimer and his Berkeley colleagues operate the 22-year-old Arecibo project, called SERENDIP (Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations).

In the next couple of years, Anderson and Werthimer hope to analyze radio data from a telescope in the southern hemisphere, complementing the northern hemisphere data from Arecibo.

Other major funders for SETI@home have been Sun Microsystems, which donated computing equipment, and the University of California, which provided matching funds of $300,000 from its Digital Media Innovation Program. Additional sponsors include Quantum Corp., Fuji Film Computer Products, Informix and The SETI Institute.

While Project Voyager will help fund the society's programs, The Planetary Society will provide cutting-edge science content to Project Voyager's Web site. The society and Project Voyager also plan to develop innovative educational material about the project, SETI in general, and the new field of astrobiology.



Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at
UC Berkeley.

Comments? E-mail