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Your PC could power astronomical research

Household computers across the world are helping power the processing of astronomical observations of distant galaxies as part of a project based in Perth.

theSkyNet is used to combine the computer power of thousands of computers sitting in spare rooms, offices and lounge rooms to help scientists process data.

International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research outreach and education officer Kirsten Gottschalk said anyone with computer and access to the internet could contribute.

"You go on the website and connect your computer there or download software that runs in the back of your computer," she said.

"People who get involved could be part of something much bigger."

The network could eventually process data from the Square Kilometre Array project which hopes to answer some of the biggest questions, including how our universe formed and if there is life beyond Earth.


So far the ICRAR program has processed 9 terabytes of data in its first year, the equivalent of about a third of what one of the world's fastest super computers could process.

The network is made up of about 8000 computers, of which about 2500 are usually being used at any one time.

About 30 per cent of the computers in the system are based in Australia, 40 per cent in the United Kingdom and the remaining across the rest of the world.

"It's a broad section of the community who take part," Ms Gottschalk said.

She said just recently she had been contacted by someone in South America who wanted to take part.

Ms Gottschalk said any computer could be used; it did not have to be anything new or fancy.

"The whole premise is, there are a lot of people, doing a little bit," she said.

She said the extra processing power allowed more projects to be completed.

"There are super computers we have access to but getting access to them can be expensive and competitive, there's always more we want to do and we don't necessarily have the funding," Ms Gottschalk said.

"It's an untapped market, many of these computers are sitting not doing anything.

"It really does make a difference."

She said the computers had so far been processing simulated data for CSIRO's Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder using a program which was identifying noise in images and in the future could be used on data that comes in from the SKA project.

Adelaide Hills computer programmer Kim Hawtin has so far been the biggest individual contributor to theSkyNet program.

He heard about it through a friend and said he decided to take part to help do "useful scientific work."

"It allows the scientists to get more bang for their buck," he said.

"It's a chance to contribute to real science."

On a recent trip to the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory which is home to world class telescopes and eventually will house the SKA telescope, Mr Hawtin was given insight into the astronomy world in which he is contributing to.

"I've read a lot about the SKA and radio astronomy in the Murchison, but you can't really understand the scale of it until you get there and see the telescopes in action. It's mind-blowing how much they're going to achieve," he said.

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