Tuesday, August 24, 2010

    How to Discover a Neutron Star with Your Home Computer
  • Three users in Iowa and Germany have discovered a new radio pulsar by using a distributed computing program called Einstein@Home, which analyzes astronomical data while a computer is idle.
  • Three users in Iowa and Germany have discovered a new radio pulsar by using a distributed computing program called Einstein@Home, which analyzes astronomical data while a computer is idle.

    When the Colvins, a couple from Iowa, received several e-mails about how their computer had made a major scientific discovery, they deleted them.

    "It turns out that they thought the e-mails were spam," Bruce Allen, director of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, told MSNBC. But when the Colvins were sent a registered letter by FedEx, they realized the e-mails were, in fact, authentic. On June 11, the home computer of the husband and wife, who are both IT professionals, discovered a radio pulsar 17,000 light years away.

    The Colvins had installed a program called Einstein@Home onto their personal computer. Einstein@Home uses home computers to process data from two major astronomical sensors, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the United States and GEO 600 in Germany. These two detectors search the sky for pulsars and gravitational waves, which Einstein predicted would indicate the presence of exploding stars, black holes, and other violent events.

    The Einstein@Home screensaver processes data from major astronomical detectors (source: Einstein@Home).

    Because a vast amount of data is collected by the detectors, LIGO created Einstein@Home to help process the information. Computer owners can download the program, which receives data from a central server, onto their home machines. When computers are idling, the software processes data from LIGO, returns it to the server, and receives more to analyze. Einstein@Home, which is currently being used by nearly 300,000 computer owners worldwide, only downloads two megabytes of astronomical data at a time, so it does not affect a machine’s performance.

    On Aug. 12, the journal Science announced the discovery of the pulsar by Einstein@Home. This marks the first finding the program has made, but it will not likely be the last.

    "It was a bit like winning the lottery," Helen Colvin told Nature. "The odds aren't in your favor.”

    A pulsar is a neutron star that spins rapidly and regularly emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation. When the first pulsar was discovered in 1967, some scientists thought it was evidence of extraterrestrial life, since its radiation was so unnaturally regular. It was even named LGM-1, standing for “little green men.” Soon, however, scientists realized the origins of pulsars, which have since played a key role in theories like gravitational radiation, general relativity, and the existence of other planetary systems.


    Pulsars regularly emit beams of electromagnetic radiation (source: NASA).

    The pulsar discovered by Einstein@Home, now named PSR J2007+2722, was first observed three years ago by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Three days after the Colvins’ computer discovered the star, the finding was confirmed by the computer of Daniel Gebhardt in Mainz, Germany.

    "This is a thrilling moment for Einstein@Home and our volunteers," Allen said in a news release. "It proves that public participation can discover new things in our universe. I hope it inspires more people to join us to help find other secrets hidden in the data."

    The discovery brings hope to other distributed computing efforts. SETI@Home, for example, uses home computers to search for extraterrestrial life.

    By installing Einstein@Home on your personal computer, you too could be the discoverer of an unusual astronomical body. Find out more here.

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