Web edition: May 29, 2012
Imagine if E.T. phoned Earth and heard, “We’re sorry, no one is here to take your call right now. Please try again later.” Or if, after traveling for thousands of years, radio signals carrying the imprint of an alien technological civilization fell on dormant Earthly ears.
These possibilities could become reality if funding forces the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence to turn off the telescopes and quit searching for the answer to one of humankind’s most profound questions.
Jill Tarter isn’t going to let that happen.
After 35 years of eavesdropping on the stars, hoping to hear the intelligent murmurings of an extraterrestrial civilization, the SETI Institute’s lead alien hunter is hanging up her receiver and retiring as director of the Center for SETI Research.
But she’s not quitting the quest.
Instead of querying the heavens for signs of life, Tarter will query life on Earth for the funds needed to keep Earth’s ears online. “We’re just going to make this a crusade,” she told me during an interview. (You can read it here.)
Physicist Gerry Harp has taken the reins from Tarter, the SETI Institute announced on May 22. “It’s been challenging and exciting, a lot of new things to learn, a lot of new meetings to go to,” Harp says of his new role. “But from what I’m seeing, Jill’s working at least as hard as she ever did before. I think we should acknowledge that she is still very much a part of the program.”
Tarter’s curiosity about life on other worlds erupted in the 1970s, fueled by a serendipitous merging of her ability to program a very old computer (a PDP-8/S — “I always thought the ‘S’ stood for ‘stupid,’” she says), with a forward-looking proposal to find out whether other communicating civilizations exist in the galaxy. At the time, Tarter was in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. “I couldn’t imagine anything more exciting or rewarding than trying to answer this old question,” Tarter says. “I got hooked and I stayed hooked.”
In 1984, Tarter and several colleagues founded the SETI Institute, a nonprofit organization that has since grown to include more than a hundred people. Once focused mainly on detecting radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, the institute now employs scientists studying many factors important for the existence of alien life — from Kepler team members who are detecting and characterizing exoplanetary systems, to astrobiologists searching for life in the most extreme environments on Earth and in the solar system’s exotic nooks and crannies.
But the institute needs money to keep searching. Once funded by a fraction of a percentage of NASA’s budget, SETI has relied on private donors to maintain the interstellar dial tone since 1993 — courtesy of one senator, who killed any substantial SETI funding for the foreseeable future. “For years, we became the four-letter S-word that you couldn’t actually say at NASA headquarters,” Tarter recalls.
Now, with the Allen Telescope Array — a SETI array comprising 42 dishes (out of a planned 350) — that funding is more crucial than ever. Last April, the array went into hibernation after funds dried up. In October, the array returned to operations, propelled by individual donors who contributed more than $200,000. Now, the telescope is under new management by SRI International, and is supported by a contract from the U.S. Air Force that tasks it with searching for orbiting space trash.
Still, 50 percent of the observing time is occupied with SETI searches. “For SETI, it is the best thing around,” Harp says. “We have 12 hours a day on this telescope. It’s very difficult to get 12 hours a day on any telescope in the world, and that’s what we have.”
Tarter is hoping to once again tap the enthusiasm of SETI supporters and build a lifeline that will support the search for centuries. “SETI really is the investment in our future,” she said. “If we detect a signal, we know we can have a long lifetime.… There will be proof that it is possible to become an old technology. Someone else did it. Therefore, damn it, we can do it.”
See the whole Q&A here.