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SETI Director Jill Tarter

At a TED talk In 2009, SETI Director Jill Tarter sought to "empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company."

With powerful computers and complex algorithms constantly sifting through terabytes of radio signals, Tarter saw a gap, and a need to put the crowdsourced human brain to greater use in SETI's search for extraterrestrial life.

From her office at SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., Tarter told CNET that when you are looking for a specific pattern or detail, computers are very helpful, but the problem comes when you just don't know exactly what you're looking for.

"When you're trying to find anomalies," Tarter said, "it may be that humans can better help us with that detection problem." A new application called SetiQuest Explore, developed in partnership with SETI, will put more human eyes into the sky, in search of signals from distant worlds.

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Google Sky

SetiQuest Explorer uses the Google Sky interface, zoomed in to the Crab Nebula here, to display the solar system before engaging the user in radio signal pattern detecting from deep space emissions.

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Francis Potter, founder of The Hathersage Group

Francis Potter, right, CEO and founder of The Hathersage Group, contacted SETI Institute Director Jill Tarter after watching her TED talk online last October.

Potter and SetiQuest Explorer app architect Blake Barrett work out of The Hathersage Group's home office headquarters in Burlingame, Calif.

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Radio signal pattern detecting

The idea behind SetiQuest Explorer is to use near real-time capabilities to immediately get data from the observatory into the hands of viewers.

By providing the app to tablets and mobile devices, SETI hopes it can get hundreds of people to spend a few spare minutes throughout their day to select and identify visible radio signal patterns.

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Francis Potter and Blake Barrett show off their SetiQuest Explorer app

Francis Potter and Blake Barrett show off their SetiQuest Explorer app running on Android 2.2 on a Samsung Galaxy Tab.

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Searching for anomalies

Volunteers will search for radio-wave arrangements that don't match known patterns, such as those from TV transmissions. Any such anomalous patterns will be passed on to more-experienced observers for further investigation.

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The service, set to launch by invite-only beta on Thursday

SETI hopes the extraterrestrial-seeking app, set to launch in private beta Thursday, will evolve an interface that incorporates 3D graphics and a more gamelike user experience.

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iOS version scheduled for launch this summer

With Adobe as its sponsor, the application runs on Adobe Air and Flash 10.2, making it widely compatible with many different mobile and desktop platforms.

Built initially for Android 2.2, the app is scheduled to appear in an iOS version this summer.

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Open-source, crowdsourced approach

Much like the SETI@home project, which harnesses the computing power of many to carry out SETI's work, SetiQuest Explorer builds on an open-source, crowdsourced approach to aggregating human brain power.

Tarter says we've reached a tipping point in computing power which allows many to contribute to what was once the job of a small, specially trained community.

Perhaps all the computing power, paired with all the new eyes, will open up new worlds for SETI research.

Updated:Caption:Photo:James Martin/CNET
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