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).
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.
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