During your downtime, even you could be an amateur deep space explorer. According to Wired, the computers of three “citizen scientists” running the Einstein@Home software on their home computers discovered a new pulsar 17,000 light years away from Earth by downloading and processing data from the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Puerto Rico. Wired explains:

About 250,000 volunteers run Einstein@Home, on average donating about 250 teraflops of computing power — equivalent to a quarter of the capacity of the largest supercomputer in the world, says program developer David Anderson of University of California at Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, co-author of the Aug. 12 discovery announcement in Science. Einstein@Home has been searching for gravitational waves in the data from the US LIGO Observatory since 2005, and since March 2009 has dedicated one-third of its power to searching for radio pulsars and black holes in the Arecibo data.

Neal Gorenflo’s post about NASA’s cloud computing platform already had me thinking about the little-known @home and citizen scientist projects, which crowdsource basic research to amateurs or distribute complex calculations. Even if you’re far too busy to go asteroid-hunting by night, projects like Einstein@Home harness your computer in its idle time to help analyze a torrent of data by distributing the calculations across home computers around the world.

But if sharing unused computer power feels a bit too passive for you, this Wired post offers up six other ways the amateur astronomer can help NASA search the stars: you can hunt for meteorites, map Mars, align Mars orbiter images, search for particles of stardust, or even classify galaxy shapes on your iPhone. While these are volunteer projects, a few lucky searchers may name their own particle of stardust.

Do your interests run a bit more speculative? You can also help SETI search its reams of radio telescope data for signs of extraterrestrial life using the SETI@home software. And if your scientific concerns are more earthbound, there are alternative @home projects. One of the most significant is the folding@home project, which uses distributed computing to better understand protein folding, misfolding, and related diseases. Protein folding is linked to diseases including Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and Parkinson's disease. Volunteers who donate their idle processor cycles to the folding@home project are contributing to the better understanding of the causes behind terminal illnesses, a noble way to share some unused computer horsepower.

In the past, I’ve written for Shareable about getting the most use out of the considerable technology we have at our disposal. There are many ways to do this, but these projects comprise one of the easiest–and most fun–ways to share the unused capabilities of our computers. Most of us own desktops that we rarely use to the extent of their capabilities to aid scientific discovery. Why not help under-resourced scientists discover a new pulsar or understand the causes to terminal illnesses?

Image credit courtesy NASA Images

Paul M. Davis


Paul M. Davis

Paul M. Davis tells stories online and off, exploring the spaces where data, art, and civics intersect. I currently work with a number of organizations including Pivotal and

Things I share: Knowledge, technology, reusable resources, goodwill.