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Extraterrestrial-intelligence pioneer Jill Tarter retires

After 35 years, astronomer Jill Tarter (pictured) is retiring from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) — a field she helped to pioneer and popularize, most recently at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Tarter, who inspired the late Carl Sagan to create Ellie Arroway, the fictional heroine of the novel and movie Contact, says that she will instead focus her efforts on what she calls “the search for intelligent funding”.

“Last year’s hibernation was a real wake-up call,” she explains, referring to the seven-month shutdown of the institute’s Allen Telescope Array in northern California, triggered when its partners at the University of California, Berkeley, withdrew from the project (see Nature 475, 442–444; 2011). The array was reopened in December after the institute put together a ‘crowdsourcing’ website, SETIStars, and raised more than US$200,000 from individual donors. But that was a best a stopgap, says Tarter: “If we don’t get funding under control,” she says, “we’ll be a SETI Institute that doesn’t do SETI.”

The institute’s research programme costs about $3 million a year, says Tarter. “So our first priority is to establish an endowment that can provide that kind of funding today, tomorrow and a century from now.” (Federal funding has been out of the question since 1993, when Congress slashed SETI from the NASA budget with extreme prejudice; politicians simply cannot resist the temptation to ridicule the search as a quest for ‘little green men.’) Using the standard 5% rule-of-thumb for interest, that means raising at least $60 million. “But what’s interesting to me,” says Tarter, “is that, at any given time, there are more than a hundred campaigns underway in the United States to raise that much for a lab building, or a concert hall. So it’s clearly not an impossible amount to raise.”

It’s not a job for amateurs, though: Tarter plans to assemble a group of experienced fund-raisers for her campaign — “people with the equivalent of large Rolodexes,” she says, “who figure that SETI is too important to fail.”

Fortunately, adds Tarter, when her hoped-for donors ask what their money is buying, she will be able to point to a substantial upgrade in the Allen Array’s search capabilities being spearheaded by Gerald Harp, her successor as head of the SETI Institute’s search programme. In the months since the restart, that programme has mostly been listening for artificial signals in the same patch of sky being scanned by NASA’s Kepler satellite, which has already found more than 60 confirmed planets there, plus thousands more candidate planets. Right now, the array can listen to only three stars at once. But this summer, Harp is planning to test a signal-analysis method that would allow it to do simultaneous, low-resolution scans of many more stars — which means that the array could efficiently carry out targeted searches and wide-field surveys at the same time.

“We always reserve the right to get smarter, and do new things,” notes Tarter, who will be feted in June at the SETI Institute’s SETIcon II festival.

Image courtesy of Seth Shostak



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