Hack 32. Discover and Name a New Planet
Do real science. Let your computer map the universe while you're asleep.
In 1991, astronomers discovered a planet orbiting a distant neutron star. This was the first known extrasolar planet, which is to say a planet orbiting a star other than our own Sun. In 1995, astronomers at the Geneva Observatory discovered the first extrasolar planet orbiting a "normal" star, in that case 51 Pegasi. Since that time, a total of 160 extrasolar planets have been discoveredonly a few planets per year of perhaps thousands that are within a reasonable distance and waiting to be discovered.
PlanetQuest Collaboratory (http://www.planetquest.org) seeks to organize and popularize the search for extrasolar planets, just as the SETI@Home project has done for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. But while SETI@Home has always been a long shot, the search for extrasolar planets is as close to a sure thing as you can get in science.
As is so often the case in astronomy, observational data are much easier to come by than the computing power needed to process them into usable form. PlanetQuest seeks volunteers to run PQ distributed processing software as a background task on their computers, using idle time to crunch the raw data. With millions of PCs working to process the PQ data, PQ expects to find thousands of new extrasolar planets over the next few years.
Project leaders estimate that the chance of any one person finding an extra-solar planet are one in 3,000 to 5,000, which are pretty good odds. And, get this, if your computer finds a planet, you get to name it.
PQ expects to release beta versions of their distributed processing software late in 2005 and to go live in spring 2006.