back to article After 1.5 million days of computer time, SETI@home heads home to probe potential signs of alien civilizations

For more than 20 years, SETI@home has sent radio telescope readings to volunteers' home computers to sift for potential signs of extraterrestrial life among the universe's roar of signals. Come the end of this month, that distributed computing effort will cease. "On March 31, the project will stop sending out new work to users …

  1. Woza

    Hope that there's intelligent life out there in space

    Because there's bugger all down here on Earth.

    (Thank you Monty Python)

  2. Alan J. Wylie

    Folding at Home

    For those wondering what to do with their spare CPU cycles, now has never been a better time than to do some Folding at Home to search for new therapies for COVID-19.

    1. Saint

      Re: Folding at Home

      I would like to help, but I dont see COVID as a research option in the app ?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Folding at Home

        Ditto - also did try and see if they had a BOINC project as well.

      2. Muscleguy

        Re: Folding at Home

        You might not recognise it. For eg research on the structure of the receptor the virus uses to bind to target cells might be in it but not labelled as such.

        Also the more in silico structures are found the better the AI algorithms get at figuring out the rules involved. Which means the next xenovirus which comes lurching at us out of the SE Asian wild food markets or just the pig and duck farms might just get sorted that bit faster and more efficiently.

        And there’s the spin off value. An enormous amount of basic immunology and virology science got done off the back of AIDS research. It needed to be done for that purpose (well most of it) but as a result our knowledge and understanding of those areas has increased enormously. I doubt immunotherapy for cancer would be in clinics right now without it for eg.

        I’m a developmental biology and a lot of it gets done in cancer research centres because a lot of important oncogenes are important players in development. So knowing how they work normally is a valid thing to research for cancer biology.

        Want to know what makes cancerous melanocytes so dangerous in terms of moving everywhere in the body? Well in origin they are neural crest cells and they migrate from the top of the forming neural tube and migrate all over the skin. The neural crest also makes all the peripheral nerve ganglia so the dorsal root ganglia that do reflexes, the sympathetic and parasympathetic ganglia, the gut nervous system all are populated by neural crest derived neurons. Neurons are post mitotic so are hardly ever cancerous. Not so melanocytes.

      3. cornetman Silver badge

        Re: Folding at Home

        If you want to contribute to a lot of health-based projects, try the World Community Grid.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Folding at Home

      Spare CPU cycles? Oh right because CPUs still run at full speed 100% of the time now?

  3. Mike 137 Silver badge

    Sorry, too late...

    Even if there are real signals, by the time they get here, the civilisation (and probably the species if not the planet) will be long gone. But in any case a conversation would be hard to sustain as by the time the answer is received the question would have been forgotten.

    It's hard for us (and apparently even for astronomers) to recognise that the universe as we see it doesn't actually exist. We're not just looking into the past, we're looking at thousands of different pasts alongside each other. A lot of it probably isn't even there any more.

    1. lglethal Silver badge

      Re: Sorry, too late...

      Your point being?

      Everything you've described also applies to archaeology or paleontology or any other field associated with studying Earth history. Should we give up on those endeavours too? Of course not, we continue them because there is always something new to learn about our history, or dinosaur histories or the history of the Earth or the solar system. Such information helps us understand the current world and potentially develop new ideas and technologies for the future.

      The SETI search has the potential to be even more significant than anything we get from studying history on Earth. If we do discover another intelligence out there, even if they are already dead, they are likely to be on our level of technology or possibly even further advanced at the time that we discover their signal. As such we can learn from them new technologies, or at the very least develop our searching technologies further beyond the current state of the art, as we refine our ability to "listen" to them. Even a dead extraterrestrial civilisation could teach us so much - if nothing else, perhaps they could teach us how to not end up dead like them...

      1. Mike 137 Silver badge

        Re: Sorry, too late...

        Down votes for stating the facts?

        Archaeology and palaeontology only work because of stratification (otherwise you just have the disembodied "finds" of the early treasure and fossil hunters), but they're not really relevant as there's no comparable reference frame in astronomy.

        The first big problem for extraterrestrial communication is the delays involved. Even at 20 or so light years distance, the question/answer turn round would be 40 years, and the Andromeda galaxy is 2.5 million light years distant. I just watched a 1962 Outer Limits episode in which an alien communicates in real time from somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy with a Californian radio operator - not really practicable.

        The second big problem is interpretation. A radio signal only means something real if you already have an understanding of how the information in it is coded. If you start out not knowing at all, you need absolutely masses of consistently coded signals to get even a vague idea of meaning. It's a much worse problem than decryption of human data traffic because we already know some basic rules about that. Consequently even identifying what is signal and what is noise will be challenging. I've done some work on blind denoising, and it's both difficult and error prone.

        The third big problem is the necessarily small amount of information you're likely to receive even if you can understand it. OK, so SETI ran for about 4k equivalent years, but there's no guarantee that all the captured signals were from the same source, and no knowledge of how many sources there were. That cuts down the data set potentially quite a lot, even if you can separate out the different signal streams (which is really hard to do blind).

        The fourth big problem is why should an alien culture pick us to transmit to with the entire universe to choose from? Just as all super heroes choosing the USA to operate in is a bit unlikely. Or are we just picking up ancient local radio?

        1. John Robson Silver badge

          Re: Sorry, too late...

          The SETI@home project was never about decoding - it was about finding likely candidates to tune into if we actually *do* find something that we can't explain away as natural phenomenon.

          Which will either give us a better understanding of the universe, or a potential sign of intelligent life in the universe.

        2. Jonathon Green

          Re: Sorry, too late...

          Down votes for a cataclysmic failure of imagination.

          Being able to decode a signal would be amazing, two-way communication would be awesome, but simply having real evidence that another technological society existed (or had existed, even if it was in the distant past) somewhere in the universe would be world shaking in itself....

    2. Brangdon

      Re: Sorry, too late...

      You are assuming they aren't local. If they are within, say, 50 light years of us, communication would be feasible. Obviously transmitting continuously without waiting for answers or acknowledgement.

      1. lglethal Silver badge

        Re: Sorry, too late...

        "Obviously transmitting continuously without waiting for answers or acknowledgement."

        Otherwise known as Political Discourse...

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Sorry, too late...

        If they were about 25 light years away, they would just be receiving Independence Day and Mars Attacks! and starting to build virus killing software and tom jones killing robots.

    3. JDX Gold badge

      Re: Sorry, too late...

      We can't rule out the idea that civilisations can last for long periods. Even modern humanity has been around for anything between 500-5000 years depending how you define 'modern'. We've no idea if our civilisation is just getting started or about to enter some sort of steady state, or likely to be gone soon, but neither do we have any idea what the norm is in other advanced civilisations... there might be some which exist for many thousands of years or even longer especially if we suppose intelligent life were quite common.

      1. Citizens untied

        Re: Sorry, too late...

        I think if you really think about it, you know what stage we are in...

    4. Muscleguy

      Re: Sorry, too late...

      So far we have an n of 1 when it comes to biospheres and geneses. We know and can prove that ALL live on earth evolved from LUCA.

      The news that there is not only Life out there but intelligent, advanced Life would be momentous. Xenobiology would cease to be about predicting things (which is always fraught in Biology).

      You won’t get me on a Mars trip but I’d go on a one way (likely necessary) trip to Europa to see whats in that sub ice ocean. The prospect of a second genesis gives me goosebumps.

      The prospect of atmosphere sniffing giving us Biosignatures from exoplanets gives me goosebumps. Tabby’s Star was fun for a while.

    5. James Hughes 1

      Re: Sorry, too late...

      Sorry, it's really isn't hard for 'us' to know that the signal could be from long dead civilizations. And astronomers are all entirely cognisant of the fact. The concept of the speed of light really isn't that difficult to understand.

  4. John Robson Silver badge

    Ahh, fond memories...

    Of maintaining a server fleet just for processing...

    Was all good fun, and kept the flat warm (though I did melt the rubber feet of a keyboard into the enamel beige of the tower pc it perched on)

    1. monty75

      Re: Ahh, fond memories...

      Those innocent days when stealing computing cycles from your employer meant looking for little green men instead of cryptomining for greenbacks.

      1. Muscleguy

        Re: Ahh, fond memories...

        When your employer is the science faculty of a university and you have a JANET pipe for the data to go down there really is no issue. Though as a Biologist I would tend to feel a need to prioritise FOLD over SETI.

        I used to do FOLD on my work computer and SETI on the home one as a compromise. Now criptomining stealing cycles from compromised webpages seems to be the thing now.

      2. John Robson Silver badge

        Re: Ahh, fond memories...

        I recall one person using their work compute for SETI@Home over Christmas one year..

        They worked for dreamworks IIRC... 16 CPU Alpha beasts, so over the holidays, and with permission, he cranked 15 instances of SETI (leaving one core for systems work) per machine on the entire render farm...

  5. israel_hands

    Of course, the Dark Forest theory suggests that any civilisation which does broadcast its existence will be quickly annihilated by another, more advanced, civilisation on the off-chance they prove to be dangerous or rivals for limited resources in future. So maybe everyone is staying quiet for a very good reason...

    1. Mark 85

      So, they're being quiet and thus stealthy. Any idea of when they will arrive? I think popcorn and fine adult beverage is in order for watching the apocalypse.

      1. OssianScotland

        Salted Peanuts are preferred, IIRC. Of course, that may only work when Vogons arrive.

        Obvious Icon, raised in memory of DA

    2. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

      So maybe everyone is staying quiet for a very good reason.

      We're doomed!

  6. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    I assume that the analysis will mention what proprtion of the 2.6e23 flops were carried out when. I expect a balancing act between the initial enthusiasm bringing numbers of boxes to the party and later tech bring fewer but vastly more powerful ones.

    In fact, I wonder whether it is sensible to run a distributed computing project over such a long period.

    1. John Robson Silver badge

      Should be able to see that daily easily in their stats - they used to publish "blocks processed" when I was doing it...

    2. rg287

      Definitely biased towards the latter stages, mainly due to the development of CUDA/GPU processing.

      I got my first laptop quite toasty running classic SETI overnight ~2004-07.

      When I built my first proper gaming rig in 2011 with a dedicated GPU I doubled 3 years worth of contributions in about a month. Being a quad-core i5 didn't hurt either, but it was mostly the GPU. The CPU cores (3, with core 4 left for system) could crunch a unit in ~75 minutes, so ~0.8units/hr/core or 2.4units/hr overall. The GPU was doing a unit every 10-12mins (5-6units/hr).

      That was a GTX460 IIRC. Enthusiasts with a 480 or multiples SLI'd would have been crunching units much faster.

      If you were building a dedicated rig, there was a lot to be said for buying the cheapest board/CPU you could find that had multiple full-length PCIe slots, pop on 4GB RAM and simply use it as a host for the best GPUs you could afford. The work isn't especially I/O bound. The workunits were small, it was all on-GPU using the graphics memory.

      In fact, I wonder whether it is sensible to run a distributed computing project over such a long period.

      Perfection is the enemy of progress. Tech will always be better in 5 years than it is today. You have to start sometime - and given the cost of storage 20 years ago, the costs associated with storing the data for later analysis may well have outstripped the cost of getting the data crunched (inefficiently) back then and just storing that output.

      And SETI really broke new ground for citizen science and distributed computing. All the other projects like Folding@Home followed SETI's lead, so the contribution stretches far beyond the direct scientific objectives of SETI@Home.

  7. jmch Silver badge


    Do my eyes deceive me, or is that the satellite transmission dish from Goldeneye?

    1. Anonymous Custard

      Re: Arecibo

      Indeed it is -

      1. jmch Silver badge

        Re: Arecibo

        And one of the scenes for Sean Bean's many many many many movie deaths...

  8. Nosher

    What frequency?

    I've never really understood why SETI, and others of its ilk, pitch their search frequencies in the Gigahertz range, when if we're anything to go by the sorts of frequencies likely to leak into space in a significant way are those of radio and TV (from long-wave through UHF, etc). There's a theory that as things like analogue TV and nationwide transmitters get turned off, and TV/radio moves more onto fibre, the internet and technologies like DAB for distribution or transmission, where broadcast "cells" are lower-powered but more numerous, we as a civilisation have already passed through the short window where we're blasting high-energy, discoverable, signals all over space. Why the assumption that any sufficiently-advanced civilisation will suddenly switch to microwave if it wants to announce its existence? Maybe it's better for generating high energy bursts, but the odds of looking at the right patch of sky at the right time seem much reduced.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What frequency?

      IIRC - some time since I read the blurb about SETI, but the reason they chose that frequency was that it was less noisy and so that that if ET was broadcasting it would be easier to pick up.

      1. Mark 85

        Re: What frequency?

        So they missed the signals that are buried in the noise?

      2. jmch Silver badge

        Re: What frequency?

        "the reason they chose that frequency was that it was less noisy and so that that if ET was broadcasting it would be easier to pick up."

        Seems to me like looking for your keys under the lamppost rather than where you lost them

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: What frequency?

          "Seems to me like looking for your keys under the lamppost rather than where you lost them"

          More like looking under millions of lampposts for loose change. Fumbling around in the dark won't likely net you much but looking under millions of lampposts will likely be more fruitful.

    2. AlanS

      Re: What frequency?

      IIRC it's the wavelength of neutral hydrogen, which has the advantage of passing through the galaxy with little absorption, and it's the same for every civilisation which might be trying to send a message, whether in millimetres or microcubits.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What frequency?

      Yeah, they need to look on 27.555 or 27.025. Wall to wall of alien life.

  9. TVU Silver badge

    After 1.5 million days of computer time, SETI@home...

    I suspect their best hope will not be due to intentional attempts at contact but will be due to unintended signal leaks instead. The combination of ever improving reception equipment combined with AI analysis might at some point deliver something interesting.

  10. DonatelloNobatti

    Pure fiction

    1.5 million days of computer time and nothing found.

    That's a message.

    1. David Shaw

      Re: Pure fiction?

      Decade ago, I met a serious youthful bearded USA tech geek, who was on holiday in Italy (from his dot mil base in Japan he told me), and he smirked widely when I explained that my lab was processing SETI when idle.

      His suggestion was that NoSuchAgy *had* founds lots of stuff, thanks.

      So it's not certain that *all* million+ days was spent hunting aliens, perhaps, hopefully some of it was

    2. jtaylor

      Re: Pure fiction

      "1.5 million days of computer time and nothing found."

      Did you read the article? They've stopped processing data and are starting to analyze what they have. Most scientists wait until after analyzing data to announce their conclusions.

  11. fishman

    Small window of time

    I've heard the argument that there is around a 100 year window between a civilization starts broadcasting signals to when the signals are heavily compressed/encrypted. Once compressed and/or encrypted it becomes harder to distinguish them from the noise.

    1. Lomax

      Re: Small window of time

      Not only that; signal strength has decreased dramatically since the early days of radio, in step with inreased receiver sensitivity. And much that used to be broadcast is now distributed over the Internet instead. Thirdly, broadcast transmissions today often come from satellites, which direct their output at a nicely absorbing body. I expect these trends to continue, at least until human colonies / spacecraft are scattered around the galaxy.

      1. Lomax

        Re: Small window of time

        It seems logical to assume that the same factors which drove these developments here on Earth would also apply to any alien civilisation which develops radio. So it is possible, perhaps even likely, that our search for alien radio signals will remain fruitless (cf. METI), and that some other means of detecting life/intelligence on other planets is needed. The James Webb Space Telescope may be able to capture spectra from the atmospheres of extrasolar planets, which could be used to detect the likely presence of life; certain compositions would be difficult to explain other than as the result of some biological process. I have hope such a detection might even happen in my lifetime - surely the greatest discovery in all of human history - and shall be crossing my fingers quite firmly come launch-day.

    2. Timbo

      Re: Small window of time

      The amount of broadcast TV and radio from large ground based transmitters has reduced quite a bit as more are receiving such broadcasts via satellite (which beams the stuff down to the earth, rather than it being beamed in most directions from the likes of Crystal Palace or Holme Moss and their ilk).

      And those TV signals are now digitised in UK and other countries.

      So the idea of extra terrestrials seeing images from the Berlin Olympic Games (c 1936) as shown in the film version of "Contact" (and of any other UK TV broadcast until analogue TV was shut down) may hold true for a while...but on-going, there will be far less clear and identifiable radio frequencies being sent out from Earth.

      And if NASA can prove that "light" is better than "radio" for interplanetary comms (as they will be experimenting with soon) then even space to earth comms will not be easily picked up by little green men...

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Small window of time

        "The amount of broadcast TV and radio from large ground based transmitters has reduced quite a bit as more are receiving such broadcasts via satellite"

        Although I see the point you making, I don't think the number of people getting their TV via satellite and cable affects how much power is output from the terrestrial UHF transmitters. They still need to output enough to meet the coverage area up to the day they become redundant are are turned off. Same applies to FM and DAB radio broadcasts.

  12. Timbo

    BOINC stats

    The actual "spare" computing power going into this project is pretty spectacular - approx 1,155,782.9 GigaFLOPS / 1,155.783 TeraFLOPS (that's per SECOND).

    There are over 146,000 hosts (ie computers) currently active on SETI project from 92,000 user accounts - though there are over 1.8m accounts that have joined - but maybe didn't complete any tasks or if they did, they've stopped now.

    The current total of BOINC credits earned is 602,560,356,680 over 16 years (and not taking into account the original SETI@home screensaver version that started in 1999 and ran until about 2004).

    As a guide, my PC (using its modest but pretty good NVidia GPU) earns about 100 credits for 550 seconds of computing time.

    So, in actual REAL time spent computing, that credit total works out at about 105,000 years of compute time of my single GPU.

    It's a real shame that SETI@home is going into hibernation - but there are plenty of other worthy BOINC projects that are still going, if you want to dip into the concept of volunteer distributed computing.

  13. LizardKY

    As many people have speculated, the first message we receive will be "Greetings to you! I am Glort F'g'z'x, former Minister of Finance for Galactic Empire. Due to circumstances of much sadness rebellion overthrow, must flee home nebula. I secure 50 giga-glorps of antimatter, refined, very pure, but cannot safely it extricate. If assistance you, will share 50% to make of investment in your star cluster with 5% for personally payment."

    That, or: "We have updated our Terms of Service. Please read carefully."

    (Neither gag is remotely original to me, and I do not claim credit.)

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's seems hard to believe...

    ... that this "going from collection to analysis" phase means that really they've not looked at the data at all for the last umpteen years.

    The reality is more likely: this processed data has been continuously sifted. If there had been anything which had shown even the slightest *glimmer* of hope of a signal, it would have been announced excitedly and a huge amount of resource thrown into that area of the sky. This is because of (a) general human nature to boast / peek through the keyhole, and (b) because results attract funding.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How Long

    How long would it take one of the large supercomputers to do 2.6e23 floating-point operations?

    I also wonder what the power use would be in both instances.

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: How Long

      10 petaflops (1e16) for one year (3e7), assuming you could get the data in and out fast enough.

      1. StargateSg7

        Re: How Long

        ".... How Long

        How long would it take one of the large supercomputers to do 2.6e23 floating-point operations?

        One answer: 10 petaflops (1e16) for one year (3e7), assuming you could get the data in and out fast enough. ..."


        On our 119 ExaFLOP system, less than 32 hours ....

        But then again, I don't exactly NEED proof that aliens exists ... they do .....


  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Oh, let me give it a try...

    Our futile attempt to find intelligence in the cosmos has contributed to the damage that has been caused to our own atmosphere, so in effect our search for life out there has endangered our existence down here.

    1. Timbo

      Re: Oh, let me give it a try...

      "Our futile attempt to find intelligence in the cosmos has contributed to the damage that has been caused to our own atmosphere, so in effect our search for life out there has endangered our existence down here."

      What you say is true of course...all those home (and sometimes work) computers, crunching away, using up electricity and adding to the global warming effect - and I can vouch for the fact that the room where my PC is, I have the radiator switched off as the room is nice and cosy without the central heating being on.

      But, if one extends this argument some more: Over the last 20 years or so, (since the internet took off) I would guess that the thousands of servers being used in data centres around the world has actually had a bigger impact than a few home PCs - all these websites, e-commerce shops, government departments, social media platforms, free email services, cloud based storage solutions, etc etc have all made a far bigger contribution.

      And I've not even included all the Bitcoin warehouses in China spewing all their excess heat into the atmos !!

      We're also now talking about electric cars, trucks, buses, probably motor bikes, tractors, ships, etc becoming electrically powered - and I doubt that the process of providing that can be met with just solar/wind/ there'll be a further increase in global warming, generating the extra energy the world will need as it goes fully "electric", as other sources will not be 100% efficient (ie whatever power stations need to run their turbines, whether it is gas/coal/oil/nuclear etc.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Oh, let me give it a try...

        I am totally in agreement with you. Firstly, if they had found anything by now, definitive that is, there would have been a huge song and dance. So you don't need to read the report.

        As for the heat being spewed into the atmosphere, I believe that the earth loses a lot of that every night, but a lot more heat is pumped in during the day. Its the carbon dioxide... anyhow nuff of that.

      2. lglethal Silver badge

        Re: Oh, let me give it a try...

        Timbo just to correct you on one thing. Electric cars are hugely more efficient than fossil fuel cars. Even electric cars that are powered by energy created from fossil fuel power plants. It's a simple matter of efficiency and economies of scale. A fossil fuel plant produces way more energy, much more cleanly than even the most efficient petrol fueled car.

        So 1000 electric cars powered by a coal burning plant will still be cleaner than 10000 petrol fueled cars. Add in some of that power coming from renewables and the numbers look even better. So electric cars/planes/ships/etc will have a significant effect on improving the environment.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Oh, let me give it a try...

          "So 1000 electric cars powered by a coal burning plant will still be cleaner than 10000 petrol fueled cars."

          I assume the 1000 electric / 10000 petrol comment was just a typo, rather than the sort of statistical apples-vs-oranges I've come to expect from climate change nutters. (Here's a clue - when your so-called 'scientific experts' go from all low-lying areas WILL BE flooded in 15 years to all low-lying areas WILL BE flooded in 30 years and the time between the two statements is FORTY YEARS it's a pretty safe bet that they really do not know what they are talking about. Either that, or they know exactly what lies they are spreading and they're afraid more people will remember "Hold on, thirty years ago you said we would have been underwater for ten years by now...")

          Please note, this does not mean I think *you* are necessarily a climate change nutter - I did say I assume it's a typo!

  17. Conundrum1885


    Here's hoping they find something.

    Incidentally what will folks here do if we find proof of aliens?

    It would be a very significant event in human history.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: EBEs

      Bomb Them!

      1. Conundrum1885

        Re: EBEs

        Harsh! They are more than likely benign, may even be a lot more advanced than us.

        Here's hoping we encounter something like the Vulcans, and not the Klingons.

  18. Luiz Abdala

    Thank you...

    ... for warming up my stress test machines on freshly overclocked builds.

    24 hours of 'cooking' without BSODS or freezes ensured the machines were good to go, while being useful.

    Not just SETI, but lots of BOINC projects.

  19. Johnny Canuck


    “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

    ― Arthur C. Clarke

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Hmm

      And Schrödinger would say that both possibilities could exist simultaneously.

  20. FuzzyTheBear

    More of a question than comment ..

    How much time would it take to process all that data on a modern super ?

    Wondering here :)

    1. John H Woods Silver badge

      Re: More of a question than comment ..

      Ken Hagen already answered that question ^^


    SETI Search for Extra Terrestial Intelligence

    I wonder if SETI has taken into account Zombie Domains.

    If a line is :



    abyss 192

    void 2297

    mercury ( with earth presentation)

    other areas could be vision domains.

    These domains could be in the same area such as norf for example dyaland.

    Norf could be in the Andrmyda quadrant Baron a neighbouring quadrant.

    I think this why folding is used to express the various lines, though most would prefer a 2D rectangle map.

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