Skynet seeks to crowdsource the stars

Jodrell Bank, Getty
Image caption Huge amounts of data gathered by telescopes will be analysed in home computers around the world

Idle home computers are being sought to help search through mountains of astronomical data.

The Skynet project involves using the spare processing capacity of computers as a giant, distributed supercomputer.

PCs joining Skynet will scour the data for sources of radiation that reveal stars, galaxies and other cosmic structures.

People who process the most data could win a visit to one of the observatories gathering data for the project.

Star searchers

The Skynet project is being run by the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) and it is seeking the help of thousands of PCs to analyse data.

One of the sources of data will be the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) that will use thousands of dish antennas to create the most sensitive sky watching instrument ever made.

A decision about where to build the £1.5bn SKA will be made in February 2012 and it will be sited in either Australia or South Africa.

While it will have its own cadre of supercomputers to analyse data, the SKA is expected to produce so much information that a system to filter this down to the most interesting samples will be needed. Skynet will be part of that large-scale filtering system.

"As we design, develop and switch on the next generation of radio telescopes, the supercomputing resources processing this deluge of data will be in increasingly high demand," said Professor Peter Quinn, director of ICRAR in a statement.

"SkyNet aims to complement the work already being done by creating a citizen science computing resource that radio astronomers can tap into and process data in ways and for purposes that otherwise might not be possible," he added.

Prior to the SKA being built and switched on, the computers joining ICRAR's Skynet will crunch data from current radio astronomy research projects.

Those signing up to help will download a small program that will get a computer looking through data when that PC is not being used for anything else.

ICRAR said the Skynet program was small and should not slow down any PC it is running on. Also, it said, data would be split into small packets to ensure it did not swamp a participant's net connection.

Distributed computing projects that harness idle machines are a well-established way of scouring through research data. One of the earliest looked through radio signals for evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

More recent projects simulate protein folding and help physicists search for the Higgs boson - the missing piece of what is known as the Standard Model, the most widely accepted theory of particle physics.

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