Space: The Final Frontier & How You Can Help
June 28th, 2000

Space - The Final Frontier

Area 54, Star Trek, Flash Gordon, The Twilight Zone, Captains Kirk, Picard, and Janeway, Star Wars, Gene Roddenberry, the movie Independence Day, E.T., Buck Rogers, Lost in Space, Steven Spielberg, Luke Skywalker and Hans Solo, real space travel, men landing on the Moon, life on Mars, water on Mars, Neil Armstrong and the other original astronauts - all of this and more has helped color and shape how our generation views the whole subject of space, space exploration, and the possibility of other civilizations as yet unknown to us. I suspect that future generations may look at our struggle with this whole topic in the same manner as we now look at those past generations who believed that there were gods like Zeus who controlled the world.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) defines our ongoing interest in space and space travel as "Our quest to know our cosmic origins and destiny." With almost no effort on your part you, from your home computer, can contribute to the quest to try and provide answers to some of the questions.

What is SETI?

SETI@home is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). You can participate by running a free program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data. I have been participating in the SETI experiment for a few months now and want to recommend it to others. (I also want to request that you participate as part of The Mac Observer Computing With Bifocals Team, but more about that later.) This university sponsored program basically uses millions of computers around the world to supplement what the large SETI programs, such as those at UC Berkeley, do - look very deeply at the data for weak signals or for large classes of signal types coming to us through space. By harnessing the power of these millions of little computers, the SETI@home project is able to dig a little deeper into the data.

The SETI@home project borrows your computer when you aren't using it to help "search out new life and new civilizations."

I don't pretend to understand how it works, but what it does is use a screen saver that can go get a chunk of data from the SETI project over the internet, analyze that data, and then report the results back to the SETI project. When you need your computer back, the screen saver instantly gets out of the way and only continues it's analysis when you are finished with your work. The SETI website, notes:

If we assume that our alien neighbors are trying to contact us, we should be looking for them. We are currently engaged in several programs that are now looking for the evidence of life elsewhere in the cosmos. Collectively, these programs are called SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.) ........... It's an interesting and difficult task. There's so much data to analyze that it seems impossible! Fortunately, the data analysis task can be easily broken up into little pieces that can all be worked on separately and in parallel. None of the pieces depends on the other pieces.

If you point your radio telescope at the sky there are all kinds of signals. Some come from the galaxy itself. Some come from our atmosphere. If you made a diagram of this unavoidable noise, you would notice that it's really noisy at low frequencies because of the galaxy. It also becomes noisy at higher frequencies due to atmospheric noise. Between the two noisy regions you would find a relatively quiet region -- from about 1 GHz to about 10 GHz. (1 GHZ or 1 GigaHertz is 1 billion Hertz or 1 billion vibrations per second.) This part of the radio spectrum is just above the part used for your electronic pagers and many wireless phones.

Join The Team

The SETI@home organizers were very smart when they set up this project. They allowed people to organize in teams: Primary Schools, Secondary Schools, Junior Colleges, Universities and Departments, Small Companies (< 50 employees), Medium Companies (50-1000 employees), Large Companies (> 1000 employees), Clubs, and Government Agencies. Those teams in turn compete with each other to see who can process more data (called Work Units) and get the most members. The Mac Observer has formed Team Mac Observer and is the #15 Club Team, something we are very proud of. This harnessing of peoples' competitive spirit has helped SETI@home to bring in more than 2 million participants from around the world, a truly amazing feat that has brought more computing power to bear on one project than ever before.

To participate you'll need a computer with at least 32 MB of RAM, the ability to display 8-bit graphics in 800x600 resolution, 10 MB of disk space, and an Internet connection (dialup is OK). For Macintosh systems that means a PowerPC processor and Mac OS 7.5.5 or later. There are no CPU speed or modem speed requirements. It doesn't matter where in the world you live.

All you need to do is download and install the client software which takes about 5 minutes over a 28.8K modem. The only time you are tying up your internet service is when SETI connects to transfer data. This occurs once every few hours or once every few days depending on how fast your computer is and lasts for about 5 minutes. All of the processing is done off-line. While leaving your computer on all day will let you process more work units, you are free to devote as much or as little time as you want.

If you are interested in joining this project, it's pretty easy. The first step will be to download the screen saver that allows you to participate. Once you do that, you can join a team if you want, or just participate solo. If you would like to join Team Mac Observer, there are two ways you can do so. You can create your own account and join our Team, or you can sign up with my own mini-team, Computing With Bifocals. If you want to create your own account, we have the easy instructions on how to join at our Team Mac Observer Web page. If you register for the Computing With Bifocals group you are automatically supporting the Observer group as well.

To participate as a member of the Computing With Bifocals group follow steps 1 through 3 under the Join The Team link and then sign on as [email protected]. Currently, I am the only member of Computing With Bifocals and rank number 454 in the Team standings. You can check out all the participants by clicking on Roster. With just 9 or 10 additional active participants, the Computing With Bifocals group could move into the top 50. Anyone who signs up for the Computing With Bifocals Group and lets me know about it will be listed in next week's column.

If you want to participate as a member of The Mac Observer group, but compete as your own team then simple follow steps 1 - 6 under Join The Team.

One last thing, if a breakthrough discovery is made because of your participation in the SETI project, your name will go down in history. With my luck it will be me but they will misspell my name. No one ever gets Gravley right. You can listen to a 10 second sound bite of sounds from space at

If you have any tips, suggestions, or other comments about this, or any other Mac topics, send them to me so that I can share them with other readers.