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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 University of California, Davis. Rosing will work on the proposed Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which is expected to be complete by 2012 and is designed to find dark matter and dark energy created by gravity-bending light from distant galaxies.

PlanetQuest's software, which is a screensaver download that runs during off times of computer usage, contains models of all the different star types and planets that exist. It will absorb data from the remote telescopes, downloading observations on the stars' brightness and the algorithms to match stars and planets. The program analyzes light curves to see what kind of star it is--there are about 147 basic types. The user's computer does the calculations, and if a match occurs, it will send an alert of a new discovery.

"I'm looking for projects that can use today's technology to get kids real experience with the scientific process."
--Dill Faulkes, British entrepreneur

"What we do is a dynamic match in between what star catalogs are out there (there aren't many) and what hasn't been classified--then we classify it," Gutelius said.

With the software, people can call up detailed information about the discovery, such as the star's region, where it's located (such as Pegasus), and its distance in the galaxy.

PlanetQuest's software draws partially on a planet detection method Doyle helped develop that was the basis for NASA's Kepler Mission, a $500 million space project to search for habitable planets. The technique, called the transit method, looks to a planet to orbit in front of its parent star. The light drops off, and the star "winks" at you. If the transit is repeatable, then it can be a method for discovering and confirming planets even smaller than Earth. But the wink can be tricky: A star can also wink if it has a spot on it or if there are different colored stars set in the atmosphere.

PlanetQuest will acquire its data from as many as six telescopes by its launch. The software is expected to be in its test phase by December. It uses the Crossley 0.9-meter telescope at the University of California's Lick Observatory and the Siding Spring 1-meter telescope in Coonabarabran, Australia. The company also recently received $20 million in support in the form of telescope time from Dill Faulkes, a British entrepreneur who has set up two fully robotic telescopes on the island of Maui and at the Siding Spring Observatory.

In an interview, Faulkes said inspiring children in the sciences is very important through projects such as PlanetQuest. "I'm concerned about lethargy, particularly in the West, for science. I'm looking for projects that can use today's technology to get kids real experience with the scientific process."

"This is using astronomy to bring science into the home," he said.

PlanetQuest calls its software a "collaboratory," in which people collaborate within astronomy and mathematics to find new planets or stars, as well as with others looking at the same matter. Eventually, the company plans to insert RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, feeds announcing new discoveries among its members. During its initial test phase, it will allow only 50,000 people to install the software, given the limits on its resources. But eventually it aims to host a community of 20 million, according to its founders.

Eventually, the nonprofit hopes to offer an enhanced version of the software for a fee so the project can be self-sustaining. And with any luck, if it hits a billion users, PlanetQuest hopes to fund its own Kepler Mission, company founders say.

The software will have five levels of education. Level one, called "Sun is your friend," will be for very young students. Level five will be for people who want to know exactly how the algorithms work. For the truly geeky, people can transfer planet coordinates to their home telescopes.

"So they'll point to that star and say, 'It's a million times too faint for me to see, but that's my star. I'm now down in astronomical history as a discoverer,'" Doyle said.