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Jill Tarter, SETI Astronomer, Retiring After 35-Year Alien Hunt

Posted: Updated: 05/22/2012 1:24 pm

Jill Tarter
Jill Tarter, SETI director.

By: Mike Wall
Published: 05/22/2012 12:44 PM EDT on SPACE.com

Astronomer Jill Tarter, the inspiration for heroine Ellie Arroway in the novel and movie "Contact," is retiring after spending 35 years scanning the heavens for signals from intelligent aliens.

Tarter is stepping down as the director of the Center for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., the organization's officials announced today (May 22).

But rather than go lie on a beach somewhere,Tarter will continue to devote herself to the search for E.T. She's shifting into a full-time fundraising role for the SETI Institute, which had to shut down a set of alien-hunting radio telescopes for more than seven months last year due to budget shortfalls.

"That was a wake-up call," Tarter told SPACE.com, explaining why she decided to focus on fundraising full-time. "I can't put it off any longer. It's really critical." [Q&A; with Jill Tarter]

jill tarter
A look at the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array at Hat Creek Observatory about 290 miles northeast of San Francisco.

A long research career

Tarter, 68, got involved in the SETI search in the 1970s, joining a small group of NASA scientists who were developing new equipment and strategies to make systematic SETI radio observations.

She signed on after reading "Project Cyclops," a seminal 1971 NASA report that described how to use Earth-based radio telescopes to hunt for signs of intelligent alien life up to 1,000 light-years away.

"I hadn't ever been thinking about SETI, or intelligent life elsewhere," Tarter said. "But when I read that document, I was absolutely astonished by the fact that I lived in the first generation of humans that could actually try to do an experiment to answer this really old question."

"The fact that I was alive with the right skill set, at just the right time to tackle this important question, was what hooked me," she added. "That's why I signed up to SETI when I was getting out of graduate school. And I've stayed hooked. I just think it's an amazing privilege to try and take on this challenge, and answer this old, fundamental question."

Though Congress killed NASA's SETI efforts in 1993, Tarter kept up the search. She'd already been with the SETI Institute for nearly a decade at that point, helping to create the nonprofit organization in 1984. In the decades since, she has continued to shape and steer the Institute's sky-scanning efforts, long serving as director of its Center for SETI Research.

Today, the SETI Institute employs more than 150 people, and its scientists are engaged in a range of astrobiology work beyond just looking for radio signals. Tarter said she's proud of the progress the organization has made since the early days, when a handful of pioneering scientists ran the whole show.

The Institute "is far bigger than I ever envisioned it would be when we incorporated it in 1984 with very modest goals to save NASA money," Tarter said. "We have a very vibrant institution of astrobiology, and also education and public outreach, that most people don't know about."

Funding the search

One of the SETI Institute's main signal-scanning tools is the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), a set of 42 radio dishes located about 300 miles (500 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco. The ATA began scanning the heavens for "technosignatures" — electromagnetic signals that could betray the presence of an intelligent alien civilization — in 2007. [5 Bold Claims of Alien Life]

SETI had to shut the ATA down in April 2011, however, after budget problems forced the Institute's former partner, the University of California, Berkeley, to withdraw from the project.

The telescopes came back online in December, after SETI secured enough money from private citizens and the United States Air Force, which is interested in using the array to track satellites and space debris, SETI officials said.

In April 2012, California-based nonprofit SRI International came onboard, taking over management duty of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory (which includes the ATA).

jill tarter
This artist's conception illustrates Kepler-22b, a planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star.

The experience convinced Tarter that she could make a bigger difference in the SETI search by focusing entirely on fundraising — which she's been doing part-time for many years as the Institute's Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI — than by continuing to direct the Center for SETI Research.

"It was just eye-opening," she said. "We've got to get stable funding into the house to do SETI research. We have a new partner — we got that deal done, so we can operate the array. But now we've got to provide funding for people to actually use it and do clever things, and do research, and look in new ways."

Tarter added that the Institute needs to raise $2 million every year to keep SETI research going. That's the starting point, but she hopes to shoot for $20 million annually at some point, to expand the search and support a variety of SETI activity around the world.

A wealth of exoplanets to explore

Tarter said she doesn't particularly enjoy fundraising, but views it as so important to the future of SETI research that she feels compelled to take it on. She's excited about the Institute's current work, and its future.

The ATA, for example, has been listening for signals from the many alien planet candidates discovered by NASA's Kepler space telescope. To date, Kepler has flagged more than 2,300 such potential planets. While only a small fraction have been confirmed so far, the Kepler team estimates that at least 80 percent of them will end up being the real deal.

The current flood of alien planet discoveries is investing the SETI search with more purpose and enthusiasm, Tarter said. Astronomers can now point their radio scopes at many star systems that are known to harbor planets, some of which may even be Earth-like worlds.

"The Kepler worlds are really legitimizing SETI," Tarter said. "All of us that are even peripherally involved with that are looking and saying, 'You know, Earth 2.0 — that's just right around the corner. We can almost taste it.'"

Tarter's colleagues will celebrate the researcher and her career on June 23, during a gala event at the SETICon II conference in Santa Clara, Calif. SETICon II, which runs from June 22-24, will bring together scientists, artists and entertainers to explore humanity's place in the universe and the future of the search for life beyond Earth.

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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By: Mike Wall Published: 05/22/2012 12:44 PM EDT on SPACE.com Astronomer Jill Tarter, the inspiration for heroine Ellie Arroway in the novel and movie "Contact," is retiring after spen...
By: Mike Wall Published: 05/22/2012 12:44 PM EDT on SPACE.com Astronomer Jill Tarter, the inspiration for heroine Ellie Arroway in the novel and movie "Contact," is retiring after spen...
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08:49 PM on 07/07/2012
I can't believe Tarter is 68!
Brilliant and beautiful and dedicated to a higher purpose.
A hero to many.
05:45 PM on 06/04/2012
I have few pictures that I consider talking pictures. One of the pictures shows a human like cloud holding to a broken light pole with its legs, and at the same time holds the upper part of the pole with the electrical wires, like waiting for help. At the far right pole is another figure alike doing the same , but the pole seem like its already fixed.The sequence picture that shot , shows a few objets flying close by , includding two U.F.-O.s That look like a flyng bus and other smaller objets that I dicover were like large nails.
I think that these things are visble to only very few people , because as I took these pictures there were many automovils passing by an that I was just lucky. Thaks for erading about my expirience
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BluePhantom2
The Blacksmith & the Artist reflected in their art
10:41 PM on 06/02/2012
I support SETI but still feel that the vastness of the universe will leave man alone for our entire existance. There are trillions of stars and planets but the distances are enormous even at light speed. If we do discover life that can communicate with us I will be shocked. I'm sure we will discover primative life maybe even in our own solar system. But the odds though good are still against us ever finding another intelligent specise.
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CDL1
Sultry in Seattle
02:45 PM on 06/01/2012
Am I the only one that saw the headline and instantly thought of David Icke??
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ralp817
08:55 PM on 07/06/2012
yup
11:23 PM on 05/31/2012
You are right, they are here but not amongs us , they are up in the air and is very difficult to see them. Some time last year I saw one on a rain cloud and I took a picture of it .it was not clear enough , I took three more pictures just moving the camera and from them on , I have taken a lot of pitures with different panoramas where you could clearly see UFOs.
My secret is that we are travelling foreever in space and while the mayority of the people is busy trying to be go getters , I am enjoying my trip and taking pictures in the process.
abbraxus
Parental Discretion Is Advised
09:53 AM on 05/29/2012
While I support SETI, I am having enough trouble finding intelligent life here on earth.
05:00 PM on 05/28/2012
We may be reaching the conclusion that we've exhausted our current technology level's ability to find ET signals. Spending more time, money, equipment and personnel would be a waste. If the ET's are there, hopefully they won't go anywhere and someone can pick up the search again in a few decades when our technology has advanced to a higher level.
12:41 AM on 05/30/2012
Quite the contrary. SETI suffers from the problem that they are looking for a signal that assumes the aliens are using 1950s technology. So the solution is not to give up but to get started the right way. SETI, of course, lacks the financial means to do exactly that by three orders of magnitude. The only question is... will they still be around when real scientists will do the real search with real instruments instead of their baby version of ET's cell phone?
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ProudToBeVeryLiberal
Science is the antidote to the poison of religion
11:14 PM on 05/30/2012
But we ARE still using old technology to transmit and receive radio signals (a tad more sophisticated maybe, but essentially unchanged since Marconi...) We can assume that aliens have "sub-space communication technology" (not real, it's just Star Trek techno-babble...) or something else just as exotic, but how the heck do we detect something we don't even know how it works?
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02:39 AM on 05/28/2012
Heard somewhere that non-human animal life on earth views humans as either

can I eat it

or

can it eat me.

Do we WANT to invite ET here?
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zelda777
transcend the B. S.
11:16 PM on 05/27/2012
"Contact" was an awesome movie - check it out if you can.
12:41 AM on 05/30/2012
I found it quite lacking, to begin with. And the climax is plain cheesy.
commento
Chance is baffling
12:21 AM on 05/27/2012
SETI is a useless endeavor. The money used to fund that project could be used for more relevant scientific researches like finding other viable sources of energy, medical researches for the cure of maladies afflicting mankind, agricultural and other worthy researches.
09:41 PM on 05/27/2012
It may be, but compared to (say) the National Institutes of Health, its budget it vanishingly small.
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Patient Zero
11:05 AM on 05/26/2012
Take that money and fund something that will help people here on the planet we live on.
09:42 PM on 05/27/2012
The amount of money spent on SETI is extremely tiny. It doesn't get any government money at all.
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Patient Zero
01:59 PM on 05/28/2012
Um ok.  IN that case take that money and fund something that will help people on the planet we live on. 
reeltime07
Is this really the playground?
03:32 AM on 05/26/2012
If in fact, aliens had space flight at the speeds required for cross Galaxy travels, they would also have wave transmission( radio/light/microwave, etc.) abilities. I agree these attempts at detection, while limited in scope do to budget constraints, has the best chance. If anything could draw a species attention like a mailed invitation, it will be the celestial event of the approaching alignment. This is a once in 5600 yr event and if any neighbors are capable of getting here, I'm willing to accept the possibility they know it could be occuring and perhaps would chose to observe it. This is the most likely time( the celestial event) a species capable of galatic communication or travel would look to our system. It is also the most likely time we may observe or detect their presence.
I pray their retirement is comfortable and they know that their work has been appreciated and not without hope of success in the future.
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sgodawind
no,nothing & nada
07:36 PM on 05/25/2012
Dr.Tarter and her friend Seth Shostak are the elite "alien" hunters. They do not believe "Aliens" could visit us. They believe that anyone who sees a UFO are knuckle dragging Neanderthals, incapable of intelligent thought. Well, I think I'm more intelligent
than a Neandethal. In the Sixties, I saw the classic white, disc shaped saucers. Flying straight at each other in a game of cosmic chicken, I thought they would crash. Just at the moment they would crash they flew up and around each other and sped away in the opposite direction. That was years ago and I was a teen and no one believed me. Recently, I saw something else that scared me. There is no Project Blue Book or any scientific agency to report what I saw in the sky. No one is listening. So, I have no sympathy for Dr.Tarter. I had rather donate funding to find out what people are seeing here.
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Patient Zero
11:07 AM on 05/26/2012
Can you imagine! Most people never see anything like this at all, yet you've seen it twice now!

You saw a couple of helicopters or some other thing. Maybe you should go volunteer at the local animal shelter. It would be a better use of your time.
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sgodawind
no,nothing & nada
01:40 PM on 05/26/2012
I did not say what I saw the second time. It was not saucers. Maybe you have a problem if you have seen helicopters that go up, spin around each other  and speed off in the opposite direction. I work, with Special Needs Children don't know of a better use for my time. Don't have much time for volunterring. My point is we should have an agency to report such sightings and let them decide if it is credible. 
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RichieB
Science is true whether you believe it or not
02:26 PM on 05/27/2012
I have the same problem with SETI. There are too many sightings by reliable witnesses to discount. They think their way is the only way.
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02:45 AM on 05/28/2012
While I prefer to remain openminded (I've not seen a UFO) there are people in positions of power that fear "alien" life will end up debunking religion so they endeavor to debunk any and all threats to religion instead.
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02:48 AM on 05/28/2012
Many sightings are likely experimental military aircraft. I recall my first and only sighting of two low-flying aircraft during refueling -- I did a serious double take. At the time I wondered if a primitive society saw that, would they think a parent "bird" was feeding its young.
10:46 AM on 05/25/2012
The article is heavy on funding and light on facts.
10:36 AM on 05/25/2012
Its a difficult thing but it could pay off if we find some other group of aliens out there. Hopefully they are hot.
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02:49 AM on 05/28/2012
I'd settle for not hostile.