SETI@home Celebrates 10 Years of Searching for E.T.

SETI@home, the world's largest and longest-running volunteer computing project, celebrates its tenth anniversary this month with 140,000 participants and 235,000 computers powering the search for intelligent signals from space.
No extraterrestrials have been found yet. But the project has continued to inspire and excite the public, and has spurred the development of dozens of similar volunteer computing projects.

Launched May 17, 1999, SETI@home uses home computers to sift through radio data acquired from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. It is searching for a needle in an enormous haystack: A unique signal displaying the telltale signs of an intelligent source, hidden in the unrelenting electromagnetic noise coming from space. The project quickly attracted a worldwide following: Three months after its debut, 1 million people had signed up in 223 countries, running the screensaver software on home and work computers and in grade school classrooms, universities and even government offices.

The Planetary Society was there from the very beginning. Back in 1997, when the project founders were searching frantically for sponsors to turn their concept into reality, the Society stepped forward with a founding grant that made it all possible. In the years that followed the Society worked closely with SETI@home, supporting its expansion and helping spread the word about the project to the public at large.

Over the past decade, more than 5 million people have signed up, and today, despite more than 80 competing volunteer computing projects, SETI@home still has the largest core of dedicated users. "The number of members has ebbed and flowed," said project director David Anderson, "but we have more computing power than ever, thanks to the steadily increasing power of computer processors."

The challenge, according to chief scientist Dan Werthimer, is scanning all frequencies, all areas of the sky, and all possible signal patterns for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. During its 10 years of operation, SETI@home has steadily improved the capture of radio signals from the Arecibo radio telescope and subsequent signal analyses. Today, more frequencies are covered and more points in the sky are scanned simultaneously.

SETI@home was conceived in 1995 when David Gedye, a software engineer now at Microsoft Live Labs, first thought about harnessing the immense, unused computing power of desktop computers around the world. He approached University of Washington astronomer Woody Sullivan, who suggested contacting Werthimer, whose SERENDIP project was already doing SETI at Arecibo. Gedye also called on the expertise of Anderson, a specialist in distributed computing. Together, the four developed a way to link desktop computers through the Internet into a virtual supercomputer able to perform complex signal analysis of Arecibo data.

Since the 1999 launch, a group led by Anderson has developed software called BOINC that lets scientists anywhere create projects like SETI@home and allows volunteers to mix and match these projects on their PCs. SETI@home moved to BOINC in 2005; other projects are using BOINC to study disease-related proteins (Rosetta@home), search for gravitational waves (Einstein@home), and predict the Earth's future climate (

As for the radio data that feeds SETI@home started collecting data two years ago from a new multibeam receiver at Arecibo that now brings in 14 times more data than the previous receiver with much greater sensitivity, all of it now feeding the number-crunching SETI@home computers.

SETI@home was and remains a shoestring operation. It got off the ground with just $100,000 in funding from The Planetary Society and Paramount Pictures, and although companies like Sun Microsystems and Intel supply it with server computers, it is now funded exclusively by donations from volunteers, Werthimer said. But he and Anderson intend to keep it running as long as there is interest.

"We're in this for the long haul," said Werthimer.


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