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When I was a freshman in college, I helped the professor of my introductory astronomy class to conduct some of his research. The job wasn’t hard: I had to look at digital maps of the sky and try to find a particular type of rare star. Open map segment, click on pixels around a light source (star), evaluate if pixels have sufficient contrast, repeat. I never found the kind of star my professor was searching for.

Looking back on this experience, my job could have easily been done by a computer program. It would probably have been magnitudes more efficient that I was at analyzing the thousands of pixels on the map, and my professor wouldn’t have had to pay it $8.50/hr. Of course, as a college freshman, I was grateful for the research experience and the cash.

These days, universities are becoming more sophisticated in the way they let amateurs help them with research. A project called Einstein@Home recently had a breakthrough when a rotating pulsar was discovered by volunteer scientists, the first such accomplishment of its kind.

As the press release by the National Science Foundation describes, Einsten@Home is a collaborative project that allows lay people to donate the computing power of their PCs and laptops to help search the sky for celestial objects that have not been discovered yet. Over a quarter of a million volunteers from almost every country on earth participate in this venture, and now it has payed off.

Some of the volunteers’ computers recently unearthed a rare star that had not been documented before. This type of star is very important to researchers studying Einstein’s general theory of relativity, one of the most complicated paradigms in science. For such a star to be formed, there are many preconditions that must occur. As the press release noted above explains:

When two massive stars are born close together from the same cloud of gas, they can form a binary system and orbit each other from birth. If those two stars are at least a few times as massive as our sun, their lives will both end in supernova explosions. The more massive star explodes first, leaving behind a neutron star. If the explosion does not kick the second star away, the binary system survives. The neutron star can now be visible as a radio pulsar, and it slowly loses energy and spins down. Later, the second star can swell up, allowing the neutron star to suck up its matter. The matter falling onto the neutron star spins it up and reduces its magnetic field. This is called “recycling” because it returns the neutron star to a quickly-spinning state. Finally, the second star also explodes in a supernova, producing another neutron star. If this second explosion also fails to disrupt the binary, a double neutron star binary is formed. Otherwise, the spun-up neutron star is left with no companion and becomes a “disrupted recycled pulsar“, spinning between a few and 50 times per second.

Quite a find! With this recent success, collaborative computing projects such as Einstein@Home, which require very little involvement on the part of the lay user, will become more and more popular. There are many such opportunities available, and the page to download BOINC, the program that allows your computer to facilitate scientific research, even has a special option for using a GPU if your computer has one. With NVIDIA releasing their new GeForce GTS 450 GPU today for just $129, beefy gaming computers can now be easily used to scan the heavens when they’re not being honed to shoot alien mutants.

I know the first thing I’m going to do when I load up my personal laptop is install Einstein@Home. If I could not find the stars I was looking for when I was in astronomy class, maybe my computer can.