Scientists at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) are looking to expand their operations twofold, but are being held back by increased cryptocurrency mining.
Ever since bitcoin and other tokens hit mainstream levels of awareness, crypto miners have severely driven up the demand for Graphics Processing Units (GPUs).
GPUs are a crucial part in the intense mining process but are also used by scientists to search for alien life. And now the supplies have gone dry.
Dan Werthimer, chief scientist at SETI, said him and his team are now struggling to get their hands on the GPU cards.
Mr Werthimer said: “That’s limiting our search for extra-terrestrials, to try to answer the question, ‘Are we alone? Is there anybody out there?’
“This is a new problem, it’s only happened on orders we’ve been trying to make in the last couple of months.”
Bitcoin mining is a power-hungry and resource intensive process during which computers break down millions of lines of code to be rewarded with virtual tokens.
High-performance GPUs are typically used to power gaming computer rigs and professional video and photo editing workstations.
But daisy-chained together in a mining rig, they can output enough computing power to mine for digital currencies like bitcoin or ethereum.
This has become a problem for gamers and media professionals with store shelves staying empty and prices going up.
Games journalist Jared Walton summed up the issued when he said: “It’s a terrible time to buy a graphics card.”
The scientist at the Berkeley SETI Research Center now stressed how the situation was affecting his work as well.
Mr Werthimer explained: “At SETI we want to look at as many frequency channels as we possibly can because we don’t know what frequency ET will be broadcasting on and we want to look for lots of different signal types – is it AM or FM, what communication are they using?”
“That takes a lot of computing power.”
According to Mr Werthimer, some of SETI’s listening arrays utilise up to 100 GPUs at once to crunch all the numbers.
SETI researchers use powerful telescope arrays and antenna to blast radio waves of various frequencies through space in the hope someone answers.
At the same time SETI goes through hours and hours of cosmic noise from outer space to filter out any extraterrestrial messages.
GPU prices have, in many cases, doubled over the last year thanks to the growing popularity of bitcoin and ethereum.
A mid-range AMD Radeon RX 570 with a price tag of around $200 last spring now fetches upwards of $300 and $400 in some instances.
PC gamers who rely on solid GPUs to run the most demanding of games have decried the current situation.
One Reddit poster, Ideas966, said in January: “I’m starting to worry that if the crytocurrency mining phenomenon doesn’t end soon that the PC gaming market could start to take a hit.
“It’s not hard to imagine a lot of people shying away from building/upgrading their PC if the GPU alone costs over $1000.”