Five years after The Planetary Society helped launch SETI@home, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence that utilizes a distributed computer system, the project now operates as the most powerful computer on Earth and has racked up an impressive list of accomplishments:
Nearly 5 million participants in 226 countries
Nearly 2 million CPU (Computer Processing Units) years of work
Over 1.3 billion results received
Not bad, considering that the project's founders, David Anderson and Dan Werthimer of University of California, Berkeley, originally hoped to attract a few thousand people to participate in the program!
The Planetary Society is the founding and principal sponsor of SETI@home, which is based at UC Berkeley. Original funding was provided by The Planetary Society's members and a grant from Paramount Pictures.
The program harnesses the computing power of individual computers worldwide to analyze data from the Arecibo radio telescope. SETI@home sends packets of raw data to the personal computers of volunteers around the world. When the volunteer is not using his or her computer, SETI@home kicks in as a screensaver and begins processing the data. Today SETI@home serves as a model for distributed computing systems, and the technology developed for the project is being adapted for use by many other scientific research projects in fields ranging from medicine to mathematics.
To celebrate SETI@home's 5th anniversary, The Planetary Society is honoring those participants who have processed the greatest amount of data over the past five years. The top 10 teams in each of nine categories and the top 10 individuals will each receive a certificate of accomplishment.
The top 10 teams represent a broad spectrum of participants, ranging from companies that employ thousands to primary school teams where a few individuals manage the system for the entire school. The common bond is a commitment to SETI@home and, in many cases, the enjoyment of a little friendly competition.
"Our original ambition was to make it to the top 100 SETI@home clubs," said Ron Eunson of BroadbandReports.com Team Starfire, ranked sixth among Clubs. "Obviously we went a little further."
Some well-known names figure in the team lists. The US Navy, Air Force and Army all made the cut among top 10 Government Agencies, but then so did the Ministry of Silly Walks.
The top 10 Large Company list is a veritable who's who of high tech: Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, SGI, IBM, Microsoft, Intel Corporation, Unisys, Apple Computer, Cisco Systems, and VERITAS.
Jon Redinger of VERITAS is pleased that data he processed included one of SETI@home's most interesting radio sources, "I know that at least one person on the team, myself, was lucky enough to catch a top 150 candidate signal."
There are also nearly 20,000 Small Company teams. Michael Bader, leader of Spot_E.T., whose company LAN Solutions sponsors the team, began to process data himself the very day SETI@home launched on May 17, 1999.
James R. Davis, who leads top 10 Small Company team The Master Strategy Group, said one of the reasons his company joined SETI@home was because, "We believed that the project was a very useful foundation for the development of distributed computing functions."
There are four different educational team groupings: Primary, Secondary, Junior Colleges and Universities. The top University team is the University of West Bohemia in the Czech Republic with 192 team members, while the University of Washington's group is not only in 9th place among University teams but was also the ninth SETI@home team to form back in 1999.
As technology evolves, so does SETI@home. Simon Holmes of Australia, in seventh place among individual users, said software upgrades and the use of additional computers has helped him reduce the time it takes to process a unit of data from 60 hours to about 2.
SETI@home is extraordinary in many ways, not least of which is the opportunity it offers people anywhere to become part of a vast scientific research project. While it comes as no surprise that the United States is first in the list of 226 countries in terms of SETI@home data processed, it is remarkable that tiny Pitcairn Island, with just 67 registered participants, is in 65th place, beating out many nations with hundreds or even thousands of users.
But all have the same goal. As Ian Tullie, leader of The Turnips (eighth place among Primary Schools), said, "Let's hope that the advances being made in the science of the detecting equipment mean that SETI@Home will produce a 'Wow!' signal, and it will turn into being humanity's first proof of not being alone in the universe!"