Do you believe that there might be life on other planets? Would you like to be the first ‘Earthling’ to make contact with an alien? Well, you can start your search from home. All you need is a computer and Internet access, and you can join the project of the US-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Logging on to Aliens
Logging on to Aliens [Illustrations by Kusum Chamoli]

NASA launched the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project, eight years ago. Based at the University of California, SETI’s goal is to examine the radio signals coming from nearby stars. Researchers involved in the project believe that a large number of stars in the universe could have planets orbiting around them. And they want to know if these planets have conditions suitable to sustain life forms.

How does the project work? There is a huge radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico. It catches these radio signals, which are then fed into SETI computers. The telescope has a bowl-shaped dish which is 1000 feet in diameter. That makes it the world’s largest stationary radio telescope. The researchers have to analyse thousands of radio signals daily. They are looking for signals whose patterns would show the existence of hydrogen or water molecules that sustain life on Earth. They could be at it for years before showing a single positive result!

Of course, even the researchers know that they cannot do a fast job on their own. So they are distributing the workload. And they want as many helpers as possible. Even you! If you want to join the search for extra-terrestrial life, then download SETI’s free software ([email protected]) from http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/.

Large Array radio astronomy telescope dishes
Large Array radio astronomy telescope dishes

What happens next is fun. While you are away from your computer, the SETI programme downloads a small segment of the information on radio signals received by the radio telescope. It analyses the data and sends the result back to the University of California.

There are other benefits too of having the SETI project software in your computer. When you leave your computer unattended, instead of seeing the usual screen saver, you can feast your eyes on a spectacular three-dimensional graph, flickering on the screen. This indicates that your computer is busy analysing SETI data and searching for signs of alien life!

More than 1,824,500 people around the world are currently participating in the [email protected] programme and more are joining in every day. It’s a slim chance, but wouldn’t it be fantastic if your computer were to be the first to detect an alien signal!