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SETI alien hunters re-open search for volunteer coders

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The project hunting for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is continuing its recruitment of citizen scientists despite the loss of one its key architects.

The SETI Institute is starting work to make terabytes of data trawled using its radio telescopes available to members for the public for analysis.

SETI is creating a "citizen science platform" building on setiQuest Explorer. Group research director Jill Tarter told The Reg that the project will lead to real-time participation in the group's search for ET.

Tarter told us: "We hope by next March that we will have a new one [project] that will allow volunteers to help us explore regions of the spectrum that are crowded with signals."

SETI's system will sit as a project on Galaxy Zoo, a site which currently posts images from NASA's Hubble Telescope for members of the public to help categorise.

SetiQuest Explorer was created under the SETI Institute's director of open innovation Avinash Agrawal, who has now left SETI after two years to join a cloud start-up.

Agrawal, an ex-Sun Microsystems senior director of engineering, was hired by SETI in 2009 to put the systems in place to involve outsiders in SETI's decades-old mission.

He oversaw installation of SETI's first off-the-shelf servers and the re-writing and open-sourcing of the 440,000-line proprietary program, which collects the radio frequencies from SETI's network of 42 radio telescopes and then combines and processes feeds, and scans and processes the data.

The data comes via SETI's Allen Telescope Array (ATA), gathering between 100TB and 200TB of data each day. It is hoped that making some of the data available to outsiders will help the full-time team in their hunt. The open-sourcing of the software means that outsiders can come up with new, hopefully better search algorithms that will be added to the telescope's software.

The ATA was actually shut down in April and SETI Institute was forced to lay off staff when its partners at the University of California Berkeley were unable to come up with the $5m needed to operate the array for the next two years.

SETI responded by launching SETIstars, with the goal of raising $200,000 to restart the ATA project. By mid-August, it had received $222,595 from more than 2,000 donors, including science-fiction author Larry Niven (Ringworld), Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, and actress Jodie Foster, who starred in 1997's Contact.

Tarter tells us SETI won't hire a replacement for Agrawal with the money – in fact it had funding for his post through until October – but it will "continue to nurture the community that he helped us start".

Tarter is cautiously optimistic for the future and there are "big plans" for SETIStars.

She noted, though, the tough situation she is facing on money: the goal for the ATA is to have 350 telescopes in its cluster. The 42 currently in place were funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, meaning the organisation still needs considerable funding just to realise the build-out, never mind fund its ongoing running costs.

"We need a more stable source of funding before we can hire on any more staff," Tarter said. "SETIStars was a good start and we will use those funds to support the work that needs to be done to reopen the observatory site and start to observe again." ®

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