SETI collects alot of data from space, mostly radio. I wonder if this data has any astrophysics value other than SETI?


1 Answer 1


Well, that might depend on exactly what definitions you use. SETI itself is a broad program. In this answer I'll focus solely on what I consider the most iconic part of modern SETI, which is SETI@home.

We have the following quote from SETI@home's webpage (emphasis their own):

SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is a scientific area whose goal is to detect intelligent life outside Earth. One approach, known as radio SETI, uses radio telescopes to listen for narrow-bandwidth radio signals from space. Such signals are not known to occur naturally, so a detection would provide evidence of extraterrestrial technology.

SETI@home's specific purpose deals with the radio SETI data. So they are implicitly asserting that the data they collect is expected to be useless outside of their namesake: they're specifically looking for things that are not known to occur naturally.

That being said, it turns out that the SETI@home data collection is almost never active (see here on their site). It is done passively, as a piggyback collection when the Arecibo radio telescope is being used for other science projects. So if your question is "is any data useful outside of SETI actually collected while SETI(@home) is gathering data?", then the answer is "yes".

Now, we can also note that one of the original goals of the SETI@home project was to prove the viability and practicality of distributed computing for scientific projects. This we can say was a resounding success, as it spawned BOINC, which serves as a distributed computing platform for a wide range of non-SETI science projects: Folding@home and Rosetta@home deal with protein folding, Einstein@home is for gravity wave detection, the now-defunct Mesenne@home was for finding Mersenne primes, and many others (my copy of BOINC specifically states that there are over 30 currently active).

So if you are willing to consider the advances they spurred in distributed computing in scientific projects, and how this has impacted scientific projects inside astrophysics (or outside), then the answer is again "yes".

EDIT: Einstein@Home recently made the following announcement about a gamma ray pulsar that was detected via the program; it includes links to a published article on the detection, including an arxiv version link if you find the official publication is behind a paywall. So that's a concrete, published, and current discovery in astrophysics. If you're willing to give SETI some of the credit for having spawned the @Home style of distributed computing projects in science, as suggested above, then there you go.

  • $\begingroup$ So SETI might contribute to technology development, like any random consumer product manufacturer might. But their random data collection has no scientific value? (Unless of course they actually manage to connect with das Funkenalien out there, still waiting). Boinc? $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Aug 19, 2015 at 5:00
  • $\begingroup$ No scientific value outside of sociology and psychology, I mean. That Seth Shostak guy indeed sounds as crazy as his deliberate hairdo. If one thinks about it for a bit. Methink he involuntarily inspired that Trump-thing. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Aug 19, 2015 at 5:14
  • $\begingroup$ @LocalFluff Well, I consider the Seti@home and BOINC stuff to be a meaningful scientific contribution attributable to SETI. One could argue about how scientific and pure the motivations were, but I don't consider that relevant: a contribution to science is still exactly that. I suspect that is about the end of the list of their meaningful contributions, though, but I will not claim any sort of expertise on the wider program. About all I can say is that I've not found any indication that radio data specifically for SETI@home has been of use outside of looking for aliens. $\endgroup$ Aug 19, 2015 at 5:34
  • $\begingroup$ I'd love to buy an orange in my local supermarket which was picked by SETI. But they haven't found any. I'd pay a little for search for aliens for fun. But not invest anything in it believing that it will improve my TV screen. Why not simply be honest about how unlikelble und ununderstandable the SETI mission is, instead of making up stories about "spin offs"? If SETI does no good to astrophysics, then that's fine. No orange picker hope to find an alien hanging in the tree and use that as a motivation in his salary negotiation with his boss. $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Aug 19, 2015 at 7:56
  • $\begingroup$ @LocalFluff But if he did find an alien, do you think we'd say he'd done nothing for science? No. Just because all he was doing was looking for tasty oranges to be sold doesn't mean coincidentally finding an alien is meaningless. Similarly with SETI, except the other way. They were looking for aliens and found an orange: a way to do (and popularize) distributed computing in science. Astrophysics and other sciences (the protein folding projects have made multiple discoveries) have benefited from this orange they found while not looking for it. They still get credit in my book. $\endgroup$ Aug 19, 2015 at 23:16

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