May 22, 2012 at 8:00 AM ET
The real-life astronomer who inspired the central character in "Contact," the book and movie about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, is retiring from her research post at the age of 68. But that doesn't mean Jill Tarter is giving up on the SETI quest. Instead, she's focusing on the search for funding for the non-profit SETI Institute.
For most of the institute's 28-year history, Tarter has been serving as director of the Center for SETI Research as well as holding the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI. "I've worn two hats," she explained. Now she's passing along the center's top research hat to physicist Gerry Harp, a colleague at the institute — and wearing the Oliver Chair hat full-time as a fundraiser.
"We have got to get this endeavor stably funded," she told me.
Tarter knows as well as anyone on Earth how much of a challenge that will be. In the 1980s and 1990s, she participated in NASA-funded efforts to search for alien radio signals — efforts that drew intense fire from some members of Congress. The fire became so intense that NASA as well as the National Science Foundation were barred from funding SETI research in 1993. To keep hope alive, Tarter spearheaded a program to continue the search with private donations.
Breakthrough ... then, a bummer
A breakthrough came in 2007 with the dedication of the 42-antenna Allen Telescope Array in Northern California, a facility funded with $25 million in seed money from software billionaire Paul Allen and matching funds from other contributors. The SETI Institute partnered with the University of California at Berkeley to operate the array, and it looked as if the search for alien signals was finally on stable footing.
That didn't last long, however.
Berkeley had to drop out of the partnership due to money troubles. Last year, the institute mothballed the array and put out a plea for $200,000 in contributions to restart operations. "That certainly put an exclamation point on the funding crisis," Tarter said. The money was raised in a month and a half — thanks in part to a big financial and moral vote of support from actress-director Jodie Foster, who played the Tarter character (named Ellie Arroway) in the movie version of "Contact."
Now the telescope array is back in business with a new partner, SRI International, which maintains the facility in return for getting half of the array's observing time to track satellites and orbital debris for the U.S. Air Force. But Tarter wants to get the institute's SETI effort out of its scrimp-and-scrape mode. "Lots of startups do that, but they don't last very long if they don't get secure funding," she said.
One of Tarter's top objectives is to build up an endowment for SETI research. "I find it very interesting that at any one time, even in this economy, there are endowment campaigns of $100 million. We could be one of them," she said.
Stable funding would reassure the researchers who work with the institute that they'll be able to pursue their projects over the long term, Tarter said. "We have to make this a real destination for folks who want to do visionary things. ... They're in some sense hanging on a cliff, because there's no guaranteed scientific payoff, although there are lots of interesting instrumentation payoffs along the way," she said.
New twists for SETI
Lots of interesting twists are in store for the SETI quest. For example, researchers are working their way through a list of hundreds of candidate planets identified by NASA's Kepler mission. Tarter said about 10 percent of the Kepler field has been surveyed so far, at a rate of 30 targets a day.
"We don't yet have Earth 2.0, but we almost can taste it," she said. "That will change the whole approach. Does anybody live there? That's going to concretize so many things which are now a bit abstract."
The institute is already using a survey setup that checks three star systems at once for telltale patterns in radio emissions that could hint at an artificial source. The setup, known as SonATA, uses the triple-check to confirm the nature of any interesting effect that's detected. If the same effect is detected from three separate directions, that's a tip-off that the telescopes are picking up on earthly radio interference rather than E.T.'s phone call.
"The next thing we're going to take on is real-time imaging of a wide field of view," Tarter said. "There are lots of challenges there, and lots of opportunities for SETI detections that haven't been there in the past."
Those are the sorts of challenges that Gerry Harp will be taking on as the new director of the Center for SETI Research. Meanwhile, Tarter will be focusing on the long-term future of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
"If we can get the research to the next level, there is something so fundamental that we can learn from the detection of a signal, even if it's just a cosmic dial tone," Tarter said. The message would be that technological civilizations can actually survive long enough to reach out to other corners of the cosmos.
"If they can do it, then dammit, we can do it," Tarter said.
More about the SETI quest:
The SETI Institute is celebrating Tarter's 35 years of SETI research at SETIcon II, set for June 22-24 at the Santa Clara Hyatt in California's Silicon Valley. SETIcon is a public convention that draws together more than 60 scientists, artists and entertainers to focus on the present and future search for life in the universe. Tarter will be honored at a gala event on June 23. Speakers will include fellow SETI astronomer Frank Drake; former astronaut Mae Jemison, a leader of the 100 Year Starship effort; and "Star Trek" actor Robert Picardo. Tickets are available via the SETIcon website.
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.