article image

SETI harnasses the power of crowdsourcing

Ben Gilland
Mar 1, 2012, 8:00 UTC

Sen—If you’ve ever fancied yourself as a bit of an alien hunter, then a new website, designed to allow you to do just that, will be right up your street.

Announced at the TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) conference in Los Angles, SETILive opens the search for aliens to the masses.

The SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) hope to tap into some of the success enjoyed by the growing wave of citizen science, or so-called crowdsourcing, projects.

Crowdsourcing websites were created by scientists to help them deal with the “data deluge” created by modern research projects.

One of the earliest was the hugely successful Galaxy Zoo project, which was set up in 2007 by a frustrated (and over-worked) astrophysicist. In just its first year, more than 50 million galaxy classifications had been made by 150,000 Galaxy Zoo volunteers (or, Zooites as they call themselves). 

The success of Galaxy Zoo led to further citizen science challenges, which have harnessed the power of the people in projects as diverse as hunting for exoplanets and supernova to compiling climate change data and transcribing ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The SETILive project has been created in collaboration with Zooniverse. 

The Zooniverse, and the projects it contains, is produced, maintained and developed by the Citizen Science Alliance (CSA). The member institutions of the CSA work with many academic and other partners around the world to produce projects that use the efforts and ability of volunteers to help scientists and researchers deal with the flood of data that confronts them.

Over half a million people already participate in Zooniverse projects which include Galaxy Zoo and Planet Hunters which is searching for planets outside of our solar system. 

SETILive volunteers will be asked to search radio signals for signs of “unusual activity”. The radio signals will come from the Allen Telescope Array at the University of California, which searches the galaxy for radio signals that could indicate the presence of alien life.

SETILive will be targeting signals from stars with known exoplanets. Credit: ESO

But what will they be listening for?

SETI assume that any reasonably advanced civilisation will be producing a significant amount of radio noise (in the same way we broadcast all sorts of radio, TV and electronic signals out into space).

Because these alien radio signals are produced artificially we should be able to tell them apart from naturally produced radio noise. Unfortunately, the galaxy is a pretty noisy place, so sorting out a faint signal from the alien equivalent of Radio 2 makes finding a needle in a haystack look easy.

Most of the huge amount of data collected by the Allen Telescope Array can be searched automatically by computers, but sometimes the signals are too “busy” for the software to handle – it is this that SETILive volunteers will be asked to make sense of.

"I'm hoping that an army of volunteers can help us deal with these crowded frequency bands that confuse our machines" explained Dr Jill Tarter who leads the science team. Jill Tarter, a Director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, has received much recognition for her work which was portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact.

Volunteers will be asked to describe and classify radio signals as they come in. By processing the signals in real-time, any promising discoveries can be followed up by SETI immediately.

"With the other Zooniverse projects - including Planet Hunters, which announced two more discoveries in a paper released yesterday - producing science, we know that citizen scientists are enthusiastic, and capable of remarkable results.” Chris Lintott, co-founder of Galaxy Zoo and Zooniverse’s principle investigator, told Sen.

“SETILive is our greatest challenge to them yet, but wouldn't it be wonderful to find something?"