The rise of virtual astronomy has given amateur astronomers the ability to scour the heavens for new discoveries alongside professional scientists like never before. Virtual astronomers use software distributed over the internet to search for new planets or even signs of extra terrestrial life. With no cost or pay involved, except for that of one’s own personal computer and internet connection, these searches are ostensibly conducted out of the love for the hunt and our ongoing romance with the mystery of outer space.
Virtual astronomy has been a growing hobby for many during the past decade. Two years ago, Jay McNeil of Kentucky took a picture of a new nebula – an illuminated cloud of gas and dust lit by what is believed to be a newborn star. This discovery marked perhaps one of the most exciting and famous amateur astronomical discoveries in over half a century.
If you find the prospect of virtual astronomy tantalizing, you may be wondering how you can get involved. The SETI(at)home software is a great way to get started searching for life in outer space from your own computer. SETI(at)home has been around since the late 1990s, and it was during this time that I logged in a few hours or so looking for extra terrestrial life. A few things have changed since then, but it’s still a fairly straightforward process to get started dedicating your extra computing minutes to the SETI(at)home software, which works like a screensaver to search for extra terrestrial life in the background when you’re not using your computer.
To get started, you’ll need to download the BOINC software (go to setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu for a link to the software). This software facilitates the donation of your idle computer time to science projects like SETI@home, Climateprediction.net, Rosetta@home and World Community Grid. The software is compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux, but see their current system specifications to ensure compatibility with your computer system. After you install the BOINC software, you’ll have to assign it to the project you would like to work on. In the case of this example, that would be the SETI(at)home project (http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/).
Aside from configuring a few preferences, that’s all it takes to begin searching for extra terrestrial life during your spare computing minutes. There are some other fun opportunities that you can get involved in as well if you choose to participate further in the SETI(at)home community. You can join a SETI team. Team’s work together to search for life in outer space using the SETI(at)home software. There are many existing teams for Universities such as Clemson and Texas A&M and companies such as IBM. You can join a team if you find an existing one that you are affiliated with, or start your own!
If you enjoy participating in SETI(at)home and would like explore further, you may also want to try some of the newer virtual astronomy software. Over 750 amateur planet hunters are currently utilizing Systemic (aklo.org). With Systemic, users examine date that measures tiny gravitational wobbles in the motions of stars in order to search for planets that may orbit stars other than our sun. Amateur astronomers using Systemic have already discover more than 200 planets in far-off solar systems.