University project lets your home computer explore space like a world-class NASA program

If you want to be part of space exploration from the comfort of your own home you might want to sign up with a developing distributed computing project that lets you participate in cutting edge cosmology research.The University of Illinois is developing the project called Cosmology@Home, which will use part of your  computer’s unused processing power, disk space and network bandwidth to become part of a giant computing engine capable of calculating predictions of millions of theoretical space models on the beginnings of the galaxies and more, the group said in a release. The predictions are then compared with actual data, including fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background, large-scale distributions of galaxies, and the acceleration of the universe and other heady stuff. If the idea of using unused workstation bandwidth sounds familiar, that’s because Cosmology@Home is similar to SETI@Home, a popular program that searches radio telescope data for evidence of extraterrestrial transmissions, the group said. The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence at Home (SETI@Home) project harnessed idle CPU cycles from millions of Internet-connected PCs across the globe in order to analyze data collected from massive radio telescopes. Running in place of a screensaver, the SETI@Home software, when downloaded on a PC, collected raw data from a centralized SETI@Home server bank and searched for patterns that might signal intelligent life — possible E.T., TV shows, radio communications or other signals. Although the program ran as a screensaver the collective computing power was enormous; 2 million years of accumulated CPU time, and over 50TB of data, or “workunits” parsed. Over 5 million users downloaded the software, according to the project organizers. In addition to picking out possible models, Cosmology@Home could help design future cosmological observations and prepare for the analysis of future data sets, such as those to be collected by the Planck spacecraft, said project leader Benjamin D. Wandelt, a professor of astronomy and of physics at Illinois.  Planck is expected to look for evidence of the early universe and the origin of the cosmos.On Cosmology@Home’s Web site Wandelt states: “Our research group is involved in several areas of theoretical and phenomenological cosmology: the earliest instants of time, when the Universe formed, the cosmic microwave background, the cosmic dark ages, structure formation, dark matter and dark energy as well as the development and adaptation of mathematics, statistics and computation to advance the state of cosmology. We expect that we will eventually be offering several kinds of computations to participate in.”While the project is in the testing and developing phase and has not yet been launched officially, users from the US, France, the United Kingdom, and Czech Republic were logged onto the system today. Users will be able to participate by downloading an application from the Cosmology@Home Web site. The project in fact uses BOINC software, the same package used for SETI@home,, Rosetta@home and others. According to the Web site, your account on Cosmology@Home will be identified by a name that you choose. This name may be shown on the Cosmology@Home web site, along with a summary of the work your computer has done for Cosmology@Home. If you want to be anonymous, choose a name that doesn't reveal your identity. According to the Web site, if you participate in Cosmology@Home, information about your computer, such as its processor type, amount of memory, etc., will be recorded by Cosmology@Home and used to decide what type of work to assign to your computer. This information will also be shown on Cosmology@Home's web site. Nothing that reveals your computer's location will be shown, the group states.  “Any time you download a program through the Internet you are taking a chance: the program might have dangerous errors, or the download server might have been hacked. Cosmology@Home has made efforts to minimize these risks. We have tested our applications carefully. Our servers are behind a firewall and are configured for high security. To ensure the integrity of program downloads, all executable files are digitally signed on a secure computer not connected to the Internet.  The applications run by Cosmology@Home may cause some computers to overheat. If this happens, stop running Cosmology@Home or use a utility program that limits CPU usage. “

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