Dishes, or computers: which level of SETI involvement is right for you?
The SETI League's Project Argus is an effort of tech-savvy experimenters to build up a global network of small radio telescopes, and monitor the entire sky. It's ambitious and, quite frankly, beyond most everybody's reach. If you aren't quite ready to build your own radio telescope, but still want to support SETI, one alternative is to put your money where your math is, join somebody's Team, and help professional astronomers to finance 'real SETI.'
Now along comes SETI@home, a most appealing middle ground. Those not ready to build a mini-Arecibo in the back garden, but who feel that SETI is too important to be left to the professionals, have in SETI@home a low-cost opportunity to make a difference. And working together is certainly working! Today half a million home computers are devouring data from the world's largest radio telescope, TeraBytes at a time.
Still, while the screen saver churns away in the background, the appetite for involvement is not sated. "I'm no rocket scientist," I hear you saying, "but I want to do more than wait for my Pentium to claim the prize. Where can I go from here?"
Fortunately, it doesn't take a rocket scientist. But before we can propose a promising path, we need to take a close look at SETI@home's strengths, and weaknesses. The public involvement benefits are obvious, and have already resulted in the creation of the world's most powerful supercomputer. The software is fully capable of discovering that elusive needle. Only, where do we find the haystack?
The SETI@home packet your PC is processing came from Arecibo, the world's largest radio dish. So did everybody else's. Which means that half a million PCs are being serviced by a single data source. A powerful source to be sure. But with lotteries all over the world, why buy all our tickets for a single drawing?
Arecibo achieves its sensitivity by scanning a slim slice of the celestial sphere -- perhaps only a millionth of the sky at a time. That means if it's turned on, and tuned to exactly the right frequency, at exactly the instant The Call comes in, there's still a 99.9999% chance it will be pointed the wrong way. No software in the world is going to find photons that didn't hit the fan. No matter how many computers are running it.
Perhaps that's where the eyes of Argus can really shine. Imagine a global network of thousands of amateur radio telescopes, scanning the entire sky in real time. Now imagine something akin to SETI@home, software which will let you scan that data via the Internet. Only instead of archival data recorded weeks ago, we're talking live data which your computer can capture in real time. So you need not wait for the evening news to hear the winning numbers.
ARGUS@home won't happen overnight, any more than SETI@home did. Project Argus went online almost four years ago with only five telescopes. Today we're approaching a hundred. It's going to take us a few more years before the Argus network grows to truly global proportions. Until then, there's always Arecibo.
The distributed computing concept pioneered by SETI@home is very adept at finding needles. The global network of Argus telescopes will be ideal for finding haystacks. Seems to me, it's a marriage made in heaven.
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this page last updated 4 January 2003
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