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Jill Tarter

Courtesy of Jill Tarter

Tarter stands on the site of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. "There are few scientists in the world today that have taken the risks, challenged the paradigms and explored new technologies to answer any question in science as brilliantly as Jill Tarter," said Geoff Marcy, astronomer and professor at UC-Berkeley.

Revered alien hunter continues quest with new focus

by Alyssa Samson and Eric Eckstrom
May 22, 2012

In the 1997 film ‘Contact’, Jodie Foster established communication with alien intelligence. The science-fiction blockbuster was based on the life of Jill Tarter, an astronomer who has devoted her career to the search for life beyond earth.

For the past 35-years, Tarter, 68, has served as the Director of the Center for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research, a research institution that uses science and technology to look for E.T.

Tarter is now stepping down from her job at SETI in order to focus on fundraising endeavors for the institute.  SETI Institute reports that physicist Gerry Harp will replace her. And while she no longer directs the institute, her legacy as a trailblazer continues.

“Jill Tarter has been the worldwide leader in the search for life elsewhere in the universe for over 30 years,” said Geoff Marcy, astronomer and professor at University of California at Berkeley. “She and her SETI Institute have creatively invented many brilliant methods of detecting extraterrestrial intelligent life.  Her legacy will continue full-steam, as others continue using the techniques she pioneered and advancing those techniques with modern telescopes and detectors."

This is quite a compliment coming from an astronomer who has discovered the largest number of planets in history.

“The thing that gets me out of bed in the morning is this wonderful idea…‘SETI is the archeology of the future,” Tarter said.

Her leadership touched the city of Chicago with the 2012 launch of In partnership with the Adler Planetarium, Tarter created an army of citizen scientists to search for extraterrestrials using digital technology. The site registered more than 50,000 members within three months of its February launch.

Tarter joined the NASA SETI program in the 1970s when its focus was centered on developing equipment and techniques in alliance with systematic radio SETI operations. The program fizzled in 1993, and without governmental support, she remained the frontrunner of the non-profit SETI Institute.

Milestone events have defined Tarter’s career.

A triumphant moment came in 2009 with the launch of NASA’s Kepler telescope, contributing to the discovery of thousands of new planetary systems.

The telescope has allowed scientists to isolate thousands of potential targets for planetary investigation.  Tarter said the telescope has allowed scientists to transition from hoping to find planets to knowing they are there.

At a time when most people would consider retirement, Tarter plans to invest her energy in fundraising for the SETI Institute.

“Necessity is the motherhood of invention,” Tarter said. “SETI is too important to fail. I can no longer assume that funding is going to be available.”

One day, she would like to see SETI-style research facilities across the globe.

“We have the tools to answer this question,” Tarter said.  If I don’t find the answer in this lifetime, I am going to make damn sure a successor can.”

Harp now bears the responsibility to fill the very large shoes that Tarter leaves behind. But no matter what the future holds for SETI, Tarter’s legacy has been solidified in the scientific community.

“Jill Tarter has been the Columbus and Armstrong on this journey,” Marcy said. “We must redouble our efforts to follow in her great footsteps.”