From PlanetQuest, software for stargazers

Nonprofit wants to harness the computing power of millions and help people discover new planets and stars.

Astrophysicist Laurance Doyle wants to get the world discovering worlds--and in the process get children jazzed about science and math.

With record low test scores in the sciences in the United States, American schoolchildren are lagging behind youth of other nationalities and causing concern about the future of the country's thought leaders and astronomical discoverers. That concern has driven Doyle and his team at nonprofit PlanetQuest to develop software to harness the computing power of millions and help people discover new planets and stars.

"Students are losing interest because they don't know enough to know what they don't know. So the idea is to get them interested in participating in speaking the language of the universe, which is math," said Doyle, PlanetQuest co-founder and a principal investigator at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute.


What's new:
Nonprofit PlanetQuest wants to harness the computing power of millions to help people discover new planets and stars.

Bottom line:
PlanetQuest's founders believe their software, grounded in the SETI@Home program, can get children excited about the world of science and math.

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Seems altruistic enough, but the yet-to-be-released software is grounded in an already widely deployed experiment in distributed computing, the SETI@Home program. SETI@Home allows desktop and workstation users to contribute computer processing time to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI@home software has been installed on more than 5.4 million desktops, according to the SETI@home Web site. Still, people have yet to successfully find extraterrestrial life.

The idea for Menlo Park, Calif.-based PlanetQuest is to harness the same computing force of the public, but to give people a real chance to find and name their own planet or star. Only 1 percent of the stars in the galaxy have been classified or looked at in-depth, and there's roughly a one in a 5,000 to 10,000 chance that people will find one, according to PlanetQuest Executive Director David Gutelius.

"It's better odds than the lottery, but everyone will discover something about stars," Doyle said.

Space exploration is of growing interest in the high-tech community. The X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit that develops competitions to promote breakthroughs in space and related technologies, named Google co-founder Larry Page to its board earlier this year, along with Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and chief of SpaceX, an orbital rocket company.

Late last year, Mojave Aerospace, led by aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, built and flew the world's first private spacecraft to the edge of space to win $10 million from the Ansari X Prize.

Google's lead engineer, Wayne Rosing, recently left the company to become a senior fellow in mathematical and physical sciences at the

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