At this very moment, tens of thousands of home computers around the world are quietly working together to solve the largest and most basic mysteries of our galaxy.
Enthusiastic and inquisitive volunteers from Africa to Australia are donating the computing power of everything from decade-old desktops to sleek new netbooks to help computer scientists and astronomers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute map the shape of our Milky Way galaxy. Recently, the collected computing power of these humble home computers has surpassed one petaflop, a computing speed that surpasses the world’s second fastest supercomputer.
The project, MilkyWay@Home, uses the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) platform, which is widely known for the SETI@home project used to search for signs of extraterrestrial life. Today, MilkyWay@Home has outgrown even this famous project, in terms of speed, making it the fastest computing project on the BOINC platform and perhaps the second fastest public distributed computing program ever in operation (just behind Folding@home).
The interdisciplinary team behind MilkyWay@Home, which ranges from professors to undergraduates, began the formal development under the BOINC platform in July 2006 and worked tirelessly to build a volunteer base from the ground up to build its computational power.
Each user participating in the project signs up their computer and offers up a percentage of the machine’s operating power that will be dedicated to calculations related to the project. For the MilkyWay@Home project, this means that each personal computer is using data gathered about a very small section of the galaxy to map its shape, density, and movement.
In particular, computers donating processing power to MilkyWay@Home are looking at how the different dwarf galaxies that make up the larger Milky Way galaxy have been moved and stretched following their merger with the larger galaxy millions of years ago. This is done by studying each dwarf’s stellar stream. Their calculations are providing new details on the overall shape and density of dark matter in the Milky Way galaxy, which is widely unknown.