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Ball State Planetarium in the fight against COVID-19

MUNCIE, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — Normally thousands of school kids and others would be using the Charles W. Brown Planetarium at Ball State University this month to search the stars, but the pandemic has made the computers idle and the dome empty. Planetarium staff has switched gears and now are using its computers as part of a global supercomputer to better understand COVID-19.

“This is an important use of our planetarium at a time when the medical community across the globe is seeking answers to address COVID-19,” said Dayna Thompson, planetarium director. “The planetarium community has really come together during this time to help each other continue their efforts to do science outreach and research.”

Planetarium computers are running a computing project, Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing platform, Rosetta@home. It’s being used for a protein structure prediction by Baker Laboratory at the University of Washington. Computers across the world are running the program to form a virtual supercomputer to help researchers determine the 3D shapes of proteins.

“By understanding the structure of the proteins that are important to the disease, researchers can then help combat it,” Thompson said. “I reached out to our vendor with the idea and just two days later, the program was up and running,” said Thompson, who learned about the Rosetta@home project from the planetarium community. “Our planetarium is now running the program on nine high-end computers and plans to volunteer more planetarium computers to these efforts soon.”

Thompson says other planetariums are contributing and even more are planning to join.