Physicists spot exploded stars with the help of volunteers’ computers


Credit: NASA

When a star dies, it’s a violent but beautiful event. It can produce a hugely energetic supernova, expelling the star’s guts into space. But sometimes the core of an exploding star collapses, forming what’s known as a pulsar.

Pulsars are of interest to physicists because they hint at how a star explosion went down and help further research into Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Researchers capture pulsar data with telescopes, but it requires a huge amount of computing power to sift through the data — an amount equivalent to the fastest supercomputers in existence.

A team led by researchers at the Max Planck Institutes for Gravitational Physics and for Radio Astronomy didn’t need a supercomputer. They instead relied on a system known as [email protected], where volunteers donate their idle computing time to processing data for the experiment. About 50,000 volunteers a week contributed 200,000 home and office computers. Over 8 months, they donated 17,000 years worth of computing time.

The volunteered computing helped researchers spot 24 new pulsars in the Milky Way. The work was published in the Astrophysical Journal.

“Our discoveries prove that distributed computing projects like [email protected] can play an important role in modern, data-based astronomy,” [email protected] director Bruce Allen said in a release. “We expect distributed computing to become increasingly important for astronomical data analysis in the future. [email protected] is also very well prepared for the increasing mobility of computing power.”

MPIfR will continue using distributed computing to find pulsars. Volunteers can also contribute Android phones and tablets now, instead of just computers.

Distributed and cloud computing are playing an increasingly large role in scientific research. Tim Bell, infrastructure manager at CERN, will speak at GigaOM’s Structure Europe conference Sept. 18-19 in London on the role cloud computing plays in particle physics data. If you’re interested in volunteering for a distributed computing project, check out

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