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Thousands Join Search for Waves
Mar 2005
COLLEGE PARK, Md., March 15 -- A new grassroots computing project dubbed Einstein@Home, which will let anyone with a personal computer contribute to cutting-edge astrophysics research, is one of the fastest growing distributed computing projects in the world, adding roughly a thousand users a day, reports the American Physical Society (APS).

Einstein@Home, a flagship program of the international World Year of Physics 2005 celebration in honor of Einstein, searches for gravitational waves in data collected by the US Laser Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatory (LIGO) and the British/German GEO-600 gravitational wave observatory.

Finding such signals in gravitational wave data requires an enormous amount of computing power, so LIGO Scientific Collaboration researchers from the Albert Einstein Institute, University of Wisconsin/Madison and the LIGO Laboratory are enlisting the aid of an army of home computer users to analyze the data. Much like the popular SETI@Home project that searches radio telescope data for signs of extraterrestrial life, Einstein@Home will involve hundreds of thousands of people who will dedicate a portion of their personal computers' computational time to the project.

"At current rates, more than 55,000 people from over 115 countries will have signed up to aid in the search for gravitational waves as of March 14 -- the 126th anniversary of Albert Einstein's birth," the APS said in a statement.

Einstein's General Theory of Relativity predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916, but only now has technology reached the point that scientists hope to detect them directly. Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space and time produced by violent events in the universe such as black hole collisions and exploding stars (supernovae). Longer-lived sources of gravitational waves include rapidly rotating compact stars and binary systems composed of two orbiting stars. The ripples travel through space, carrying information both about their source and about the nature of gravity itself.

Einstein@Home searches data for signals coming from very dense, rapidly rotating compact quark and neutron stars. Einstein's theory predicts that if these compact stars are not perfectly spherical, they should continuously emit gravitational waves. LIGO and GEO-600 are now sufficiently sensitive that they might detect these signals if the stars are close enough to earth.

The program is available for PCs running Windows, Linux and Mac operating systems. When the computer is not in use, it downloads LIGO and GEO600 data from a central server and searches it for gravitational wave signals. While running, it displays a screensaver that depicts the celestial sphere, with the major constellations outlined. A moving marker indicates the portion of the sky currently being searched on the computer.

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