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SETI project slowed by copper thieves

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(IDG) -- The search for life in outer space hit a snag last week when the SETI@Home project ran into some very terrestrial problems. A group of vandals apparently disrupted cables in the SETI@Home network while searching for valuable copper wire.

The SETI project uses a distributed computing model to search for signs of extraterrestrial life. The University of California at Berkeley (U.C. Berkeley) began the effort as a way to make use of idle computing resources from users around the world.

More than 2 million volunteers are estimated to have downloaded the free SETI@Home software, which allows their home or office computer to help with the search. Users would typically allow the software to process transmissions from radio telescopes while they were not using their own computer. SETI@Home officials estimate the collaborative effort spanning users in 224 countries creates total computing power at least 10 times greater than the world's largest supercomputer.

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However, none of SETI@Home's millions of users were able to donate their computer's resources as of February 27 because of a cut in a fiber optic cable connecting the U.C. Berkeley campus with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Vandals apparently damaged the cable while attempting to salvage copper from other nearby cables, according to a statement posted on the Web site of the university's Communications and Network Services department.

"It looks like it was a theft attempt of the copper wiring," said Bill Cooper, a captain with the U.C. Berkeley Police Department. "The people have not been caught yet, and it is still under investigation. We are going to see who had access to the area and who was there."

Students likely were not involved in the incident but rather individuals looking to re-sell the copper. Officials discovered the problem after the SETI@Home networks began to fail, according to Cooper.

"We think they took about 250 feet of cabling," he said.

The theft may have been carried out by insiders with extensive knowledge on Berkeley's networking plans, according to Cliff Frost, director of the Communications and Network Services (CNS) department.

"The thing that is funny about it is that it was a high voltage electrical cable that had not been turned on yet," he said. "Someone knew that the cable was there and was not powered."

Recent rains made the cable break more difficult to fix, as repair units could not reach the site due to mud coupled with steep terrain. The CNS department is considering setting up a failover network to avoid such outages in the future, Frost said.

"My favorite theory is that is was aliens," he said.

The sliced fiber optic cable transferred voice and data information for the LBNL and the Space Sciences Lab, where the SETI@Home project is located. The snafu made volunteers unable to connect to SETI@Home servers.

The problem was originally expected to have been fixed by Thursday. However, the work was most recently projected to last throughout the weekend, according to information on the U.C. Berkeley Web site.




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