Not quite like watching paint dry, but...
In any case, like many others, including my esteemed co-blogger Slag, I watch developments in space exploration and travel with keen interest. Sadly, given the Bush administration's half-assed approach to NASA this has been a rather distressing practice for the last few years but there have been some bright spots. One bright spot in particular were the recent successful flights of Burt Rutan's Spaceship One. All I'm going to say about that right now is: excellent spacecraft, but really creepy mutton chops.
More recently, however, a new opportunity has emerged for people like you and me to contribute directly to space science. How is this, you ask? Well, I'll tell you. Some folks here may be familiar with "SETI@Home" which is the distributed computing project that assists with the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Basically, SETI scans the sky, records a whole lot of data from radio telescopes, and then analyzes that data for artificial signals. The idea is simple: if we can identify a source of artificial electromagnetic radiation from outside our solar system, we know that there is another intelligent technological species somewhere beyond Earth. That would be, to use technical jargon, really f-ing cool. Now, since there's an awful lot of data to sift through the choke point ends up being analysis. So, to evade this glitch, the SETI team developed a distributed computation solution. In essence, packets of the data are sent via the internet to volunteers, who allow their computers to process that data during idle periods, and then send it back. Think of it like a screen saver- if your computer is turned on and not busy, why not let it do some good for science? This solution has been tremendously effective in processing truly epic amounts of data in a relatively short period of time.
This idea has now been taken one step further. Some of you may remember the probe mission named Stardust that was dispatched to take samples of cometary halos and interstallar dust. This mission recently swung by the Earth and dropped off a sample-return capsule in which its aerogel collectors were safely packaged. This mission has so far been a total success, but much work remains to be done. Specifically, while scientists are having an easy time identifying cometary particles in the aerogel, the particles of interstellar dust have proven to be much harder to find. The only solution that they've been able to arrive at is a manual search with microscopes. Unfortunately, this will take a really loooong time. So, once more, the power of the internet is coming to the rescue. The project team has organized Stardust@home as an effort to use the distributed intelligence of the world to process these data. The idea is simple: you donate a little of your time, evaluate sets of movies, and log any suspected particle tracks you see. Collectively, and over time, these reports give project scientists likely candidates for the actual particles they're looking for.
Exciting? Probably not. Your chances of finding a particle are small, and the experinece of looking will likely not be all that thrilling. At the same time, however, this is a way of contributing to a larger scientific endeavour.
And who doesn't want to do that?