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ET, phone back: Alien quest seeks earthling coders

Open source joins Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence

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Working with licensing specialist Palamida, Agrawal identified 71 licenses with different restrictions and permissions. His team either found alternatives or wrote around the encumbered code. "It took a long time to go through each license, and either affirm that it was OK to distribute or replace the software with something else," Agrawal said

The next phase is bringing onboard the outsiders who SETI hopes can bring a fresh perspective and spot missed opportunities by coding new algorithms. Some older algorithms have already been released as source code, but the plan is to release newer algorithms this summer.

SETI wants algorithms to be submitted to the setiQuest Program where they will be reviewed by SETI's engineers and scientists; if they're considered good enough for real-time analysis, SETI will consider combining them with SonATA. "What we look for are better ways of searching, algorithms that allow us to cover more data, or those that are faster," Agrawal said.

Big Ear radio telescope

Big Ear: the better to hear you with, ET

One target ripe for a fresh look using new algorithms is an area of space called the Water-Hole band of 1,420MHz to 1,720MHZ that SETI has been looking at for years. About 20MHz of this band is blocked by strong interference coming from signals on or around Earth that's generated by satellites and cell phones.

"Instead of filtering it out we basically ignore that band," Agrawal told us. "Jill says: 'Maybe there's something in that we don't know – let's investigate further.' That will require us to have more precise information about radio frequencies and require us to analyze the data much more than what we are able to do today."

SETI has already begun collecting names of people interested in working on what it's calling its first "citizen science" application. You can register here.

The testing ground for new algorithms is Amazon's cloud. ATA data is being uploaded once a week to the online etailer's service after Amazon donated 40TB of S3 storage and 45,000 hours of EC2 processing per month for a five-year period. Also running on Amazon servers is a layer of middleware built by clustered CouchDB database start-up Cloudant that provides a set of sandboxed environments to test SETI's data sets.

When you upload a new algorithm, each of the environments takes that algorithm, runs it on its own data set, and then the results are collated. The goal is to try different algorithms on multiple data sets. "Once we find a good algorithm that does what we want faster or better, we will move the algorithm to our real-time environment," Agrawal says.

Cloudant's service marries CouchDB with Amazon's Dynamo for consistent hashing, created to make data in Amazon's cloud constantly available by managing its state. The NoSQL shop provides SETI with eight nodes, each knowing where the data in the other nodes sits. Cloudant works with JavaScript and Erlang, and can support Python and Ruby. It was updated to work with Octave, an open-source version of Matlab typically used by scientists to process data and produce images that are computationally very intensive.

SETI's modernization comes after decades of what amounts to "getting by" – making do with computers like the IBM 1130 and leaping from one round of funding to another. It's been a struggle to realize the vision of SETI's scientists due to technological and financial constraints.

Listening is better than watching

MIT professor and theoretical astrophysicist Philip Morrison, along with physicist and CERN director Giuseppe Coconni, published an influential article in 1959 that discussed using microwave radio to search for communications from space. The first SETI search program, Project Ozma, followed just two years later at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. It was a single 85-foot antenna that searched 1,420 MHz.

Over the decades, there have been different SETI projects at different ratio telescopes such as Big Ear, but funding has been generally limited – or cut – by politicians. Sometimes the ideas were ahead of their time. A NASA study team in 1971 was convened to create the design for an array of up to 1,000 radio telescopes to detect Earth-type radio signals from up to 1,000 light-years away. That project, called Cyclops, was abandoned because it was too expensive.

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Next page: Cyclops, realized

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