The combined computing power of 200,000 private PCs has helped discover 24 new pulsars in archival data.
The Einstein@Home project connects the PCs of volunteers from around the world to a create a network with the power of a supercomputer, which scientists from the Max Planck Institutes for Gravitational Physics and for Radio Astronomy in Germany used to analyse archival radio telescope data on the Milky Way.
Using new search methods, the network discovered 24 new pulsars – dense neutron stars that rapidly rotate and emit a beam of radio waves along their magnetic field axis similar to the spotlight of a lighthouse, which can be observed if it points towards.
The new discoveries, some of which are very rare forms of pulsars, can be used as testbeds for Einstein's general theory of relativity and could help to complete our picture of the pulsar population.
“We could only conduct our search thanks to the enormous computing power provided by the Einstein@Home volunteers,” said Benjamin Knispel, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute/AEI), and lead author of a study now published in The Astrophysical Journal.
“Through the participation of the public, we discovered 24 new pulsars in our Milky Way, which had previously been missed; and some of them are particularly interesting.”
Each week, 50,000 volunteers from around the world “donate” idle compute cycles on their 200,000 home and office PCs to Einstein@Home – combining to yield a sustained computing power of around 860 teraFLOPs per second and placing the network on par with some of the world's fastest supercomputers.
Rather than conduct a new search for Pulsars Knispel and his colleagues analysed data from the Parkes Multi-beam Pulsar Survey, conducted from 1997 to 2001 with the 64-meter antenna of CSIRO's Parkes radio telescope in southeast Australia.
The analysis of the archival Parkes data was completed in eight months, while the same task would have taken a single CPU core more than 17,000 years.
“Our discoveries prove that distributed computing projects like Einstein@Home can play an important role in modern, data-based astronomy,” said Bruce Allen, director of Einstein@Home and director at the AEI.
“We expect distributed computing to become increasingly important for astronomical data analysis in the future. Einstein@Home is also very well prepared for the increasing mobility of computing power,” says Allen. Recently, volunteers can not only sign up their PCs for the project, but also help to find new radio pulsars with their Android-based smartphones and tablets.
But the researchers also pointed out that raw computing power was not the only important factor to discover the two dozen new pulsars. The development of new post-processing methods proved to be just as crucial.
The recorded data often contain pulsar-like, man-made interference signals. The astronomers employed new methods that allowed them to discover pulsars previously masked by the presence of these interference signals.
More information about the Einstein@Home project is available here.