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]
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]