Be the first on your block to detect alien life!

Forget imaginary aliens -- with the official debut of SETI@Home, you can sign your computer up to "listen" for the real thing.

Published May 18, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Sure, you can go see the new "Star Wars" movie on Wednesday and watch imaginary battles between exotic alien forces. But why waste your time with imaginary aliens when you can search for a real live extraterrestrial using your home computer?

Don't laugh yet -- SETI@Home, the long-awaited public "Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence" project, officially launched on Monday. SETI@Home, the largest distributed computing project ever, will be harnessing the power of 400,000 (or more) idle computers around the world to search intergalactic radio signals for signs of intelligent life.

The SETI project has existed conceptually since 1971, although it has only been collecting data for the last seven years. The SETI@Home spin-off, which originated in the astronomy departments at UC-Berkeley and the University of Washington, has been gathering radio signals from outer space via a dish in Puerto Rico. Its supporters hope to detect something out there -- think Jodie Foster in "Contact" -- but the sheer volume of data the project collects is so vast that the group has needed more and more computers to analyze the data.

This is where you come in. Anyone who is interested can now download a screensaver off the SETI@Home Web site; the screensaver will download data from the SETI computers and use your computer's down time to scan the info for alien leads and then upload the results. With 400,000 participants signed up thus far, the odds are increasingly favorable that if there is something out there to be heard, someone might just hear it. And, just possibly, the computer that finds that little green man could be yours.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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