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Keeping watch for messages from the stars.

Your home computer could soon be doing something much more useful in its idle moments than conjuring up images of flying toasters - it could be looking for aliens.

Scientists listening out for signals from extra-terrestrial civilisations hope by the end of the year to enlist the help of more than 100,000 PC owners.

The SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) investigators don't have enough computer power of their own for sifting through the mass of space noise collected by the world's biggest radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

But add together thousands of computers at homes and offices around the world and you have a much better chance of spotting that elusive signal.

The project, known as SETIathome, will provide volunteers with programs to run on their PCs. They will then be able to download 250 kilobyte chunks of data sent over the Internet from Arecibo and begin searching.

One idea is for your computer to get to work while it is not being used. Instead of flying toasters, it will have an alien-hunting screen saver.

While you are away from your desk the software will be scouring the radio waves for unusual pulsing signals that may be a message from ET. In another mode, the software will run continuously in the background even when the computer is in use.

Together, the PCs will be able to look for alien calls lasting anything from 0.5 milliseconds to 10 seconds long within a bandwidth range from 0.1 to 2000 hertz. This is ten times the sensitivity currently being achieved without the army of helpers.

Unfortunately, if your computer makes history by finding the first evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence, you won't know straight away.

Once a chunk of data is processed, it has to be sent to the University of California at Berkeley for further analysis and checks. Only then will the discovery come to light.

Alien searching will occupy about 20 megabytes of disk space, and it will take about two minutes to download the information using a typical modem. Analysing the data will take about two days if the software runs continuously, or up to two weeks intermit tently. A choice of screen-saver graphics will be offered, including a map of the Earth with dots representing alien hunters around the world, and a star field indicating the patch of sky being worked on.

The scientists behind the plan are optimistic. Astronomer Dan Werthimer, who came up with the scheme, told New Scientist magazine: "My view is that there's life out there. It would be really bizarre if we were the only ones."

Anyone wanting to participate in the project can do so by contacting the website http:// setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 4, 1998
Words:453
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