As It Happens

Astronomers no longer need your personal computers to search for alien life

A research project that lets the public participate in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is coming to an end after 21 years. 

SETI@home project on indefinite hiatus to analyze for decades worth of potential extraterrestrial signals

SETI@home uses a network of personal computers to collect radio satellite data in the hopes of identifying extra-terrestrial signals from space. (Guillaume Souvant/AFP/Getty Images)

A research project that lets the public participate in the search for intelligent alien life is coming to an end after 21 years. 

That's because the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at Home (SETI@home) project has collected a massive amount of data over the last two decades — and now it's time to get to work analyzing it. 

"Of course it's making me a little bit sad," astronomer Eric Korpela, SETI@home's director, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"It's been a pretty big part of my life."

How it works 

Founded in May 1999 by researchers at UC Berkeley, the project used radio telescopes to identify potential radio signals from space. 

Processing those transmissions required huge amounts of computing power, so millions of volunteers downloaded the SETI@home software on their personal computers, each taking on small chunks of data, working together like a supercomputer.

Korpela says program has collected 20 billion potential extraterrestrial signals over the last two decades — more than the researchers have been able to handle.

Now he and his team have finally finished developing software to analyze it. But the project does not have a big enough workforce to properly analyze the data and continue to collect more at the same time.

A screenshot of what SETI@home software looks like on a personal computer. (SETI@home )

Still, Korpela says the shutdown is more of a hibernation than a death. Eventually, he'd like to expand the types of signals they track, taking advantage of some of the bigger telescopes available in his field.

"We hope to come back, maybe with different data sources," he said.

A controversial project 

Though the project has always had immense public support, Korpela says the scientific community wasn't immediately sold on it.

"Some thought it was the silliest idea they ever heard," he said, referring to the risk of trusting public volunteers with their scientific data.

But Korpela says it was immensely successful. It's even inspired copycat efforts in other scientific fields. 

"Our volunteers have been really good and conscientious of the work they do," he said.

Korpela says he's been battling the voices of conspiracy theorists his whole career — people who are convinced he and those in power have already discovered the existence of extraterrestrials.

"There is very little that could keep me from announcing such a discovery to the world," Korpela said. "Nothing would be better for my ability to get research money than to discover extraterrestrials."

Korpela says he has always been fascinated by what could be beyond the stars, and he uses his profession to conquer early childhood fears of "beings living in the sky."

"All we do is look," he said. "If people want to respond back, that's above my pay grade."

Written by Stephen Viti. Interview with Eric Korpela produced by Katie Geleff.