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Studio Plans to Go Where No One Has Gone Before

'Star Trek': Paramount, producer of the movie series, is recruiting home computer buffs to join an online search for new life and new civilizations in outer space.

November 08, 1998|JANE E. ALLEN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Beam it down and sign me up, Scotty.

The studio responsible for the "Star Trek" movies has begun recruiting an army of Trekkies to the search for life elsewhere in the universe.

Paramount Pictures, poised for the Dec. 11 opening of "Star Trek: Insurrection," made a real-life bid on Oct. 19 to fulfill the USS Enterprise mandate "to seek out new life and new civilizations."

It's seeking fans of the sci-fi series to turn on their computers and in turn help the SETI@home project, which already has about 100,000 people signed up. Their machines will try to detect signs of alien civilizations attempting to communicate from space.

"We want close to 1 million sign-ups," said Susan Lendroth, a spokeswoman for the Planetary Society in Pasadena, a project sponsor that is contributing $50,000 in kickoff money. Paramount is giving another $50,000.

Anyone who signs up eventually will be able to download a screen saver developed by SETI@home project director David Anderson and Dan Werthimer, director of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program at UC Berkeley. The screen saver lets otherwise idle computers analyze radio telescope readings that may contain signals from alien civilizations.

When a computer user who has connected to the Internet steps away from the machine for a few minutes, the processing will start up. "All the times it's on but you haven't used it for a few minutes, it will be computing," he said.

The processing will continue even after the Internet connection has been severed. After the analysis is completed, which can take days, the program will send the information the next time the computer connects to the Internet.

"The screen saver will tell you continuously what it's doing, show you a picture of the data analysis, tell you where in the sky it came from. We sort of hope people will get in the habit of leaving their computers on," Anderson said.

Testing with real data on a few computers will begin in December; the software will become available to home computer owners on April 2, Lendroth said.

The program enlists Internet-connected computers to crunch data collected by SERENDIP IV, the latest in a series of projects called Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations. The program operates from a radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

SERENDIP records raw data, which are then entered into the computer system at UC Berkeley. Each participating computer will receive one small piece of raw data from the stream to analyze; when it finishes, another will be sent.

So far, in more than 20 years of listening for signs of alien civilizations, "no one has found anything that has been verified as an artificial signal," Lendroth said.

For more information, see Planetary Society's World Wide Web page at www.planetary.org or SETI site at:www.setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu

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