SkyNet project recalls Terminator supercomputer

In a move that recalls blockbuster movie Terminator, a new project has been launched to hook up computers around the world into a giant supercomputer. Its name? SkyNet.

Unlike its fictional namesake, though, SkyNet will use its distributed computing power to sift through huge quantities of mountains of astronomical data,.

The Skynet project is being run by the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), which is calling for the help of PC users around the globe to analyse data for evidence of previously undiscovered stars and galaxies.

Users need to download a small piece of software from the SkyNet website that downloads and crunches through data when their PC is idle.

As an incentive to get involved, SkyNet contributors who process the most data could win themselves a trip to one of the observatories gathering data for the project.

"As we design, develop and switch on the next generation of radio telescopes, the supercomputing resources processing this deluge of data will be in increasingly high demand," said Professor Peter Quinn, director of ICRAR in a statement.

"SkyNet aims to complement the work already being done by creating a citizen science computing resource that radio astronomers can tap into and process data in ways and for purposes that otherwise might not be possible," added Quinn.

One of the sources producing data for the SkyNet project in the future may be the forthcoming Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will harness the power of thousands of dishes into the most sensitive radio telescope ever made. The project is due for approval in February 2012, and will be built in either Australia or South Africa.

Distributed computing has been used in the past to tackle projects that require massive number-crunching power. These have included Folding@Home, a scheme to investigate potential cures for cancer, and SETI@Home, which scoured radio telescope signals for evidence of extra-terrestrial life - but was controversially discontinued earlier this year.