Best Job in the World: Jill Tarter

Director of SETI Research, Dr. Jill Tarter at the SETI Institute was selected by the editors of TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most "influential and powerful people."

Star field
In a universe brimming with stars, the search is on if life exists elsewhere

Dr. Tarter was chosen in the "Scientist and Thinker" category for her leadership role in the scientific search for evidence of life on other worlds, and for her efforts to promote scientific literacy among youth, particularly girls and young women. Tarter was the inspiration for the main character of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact.

Profile: Jill Tarter

The inspiration for the main character of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact," Jill Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute (SETI is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).

Tarter attended Cornell University, earning a bachelor of engineering physics degree with distinction. She earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California at Berkeley. Her major field of study was theoretical high-energy astrophysics.

As a graduate student at Berkeley, she became involved in SERENDIP, a small commensal search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations using the Hat Creek Observatory 85-foot telescope. After completing a Nuclear Regulatory Commission resident associateship at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Tarter joined the newly formed SETI Program Office at Ames.

In 1984 she helped found the non-profit SETI Institute in Mountain View, CA. Tarter served as the project scientist for NASA’s SETI High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS) until its termination by Congress in 1993. Today she heads the SETI Management Group at the SETI Institute.

"I have the best job in the world," wrote Tarter. "That’s a pretty bold statement, and one I’ve repeated often throughout my 30-year career as a SETI scientist, for there has never been a day when I’ve ever thought about doing anything else. What could be more thrilling than the search for a sentient, technological civilization beyond our solar neighborhood?

Tarter has devoted her life to the science of detecting intelligent, technological civilizations through searches of the electromagnetic (radio and now optical) spectrum, a discipline within the growing field of astrobiology. "I became ‘hooked’ on SETI", she said, "when I realized that I lived in the first generation of human beings that could try to answer the old and fundamental question "Are We Alone?" by doing experiments, instead of relying upon beliefs."

She wrote about the relation between SETI and astrobiology: " The question of where to seek life is another domain in which astrobiology and SETI are inextricable. Today’s SETI is working to expand its target list of stars each time a new planet is found, a happy reality that was virtually unthinkable a scant decade ago. Our improved knowledge of the extreme conditions in which life can thrive has forced us to reexamine our conception of habitable zones around stars, again enlarging the scope of today’s SETI search. "

A former Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey, today Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and is Director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute. Earlier this year, Tarter oversaw the completion of the Institute’s privately funded Project Phoenix and the release of Voyages Through Time, an integrated science curriculum for high school students, developed by the Institute’s education department and its partners.

Tarter is currently the project leader of the Allen Telescope Array, the Institute’s innovative, next-generation radio telescope that will come on line with 32 dishes late in 2004.

Allen Telescope Array
Allen Telescope Array (ATA)

"For me," wrote Dr. Jill Tarter about the next generation of research, "the most compelling use of the Allen Telescope Array (after SETI, of course!) may be its exploration of the very early universe, the search for primordial dark matter concentrations, and investigations of transient events such as supernova explosions and gamma-ray bursts. As a scientist who finds great power and beauty in evolution as an organizing theme that ties together so much of astrobiology, including SETI, it is very satisfying to know that the array will be probing emergent cosmic evolution and the evolution of technology, two extremes on a continuum that stretches from primal matter to minds that contemplate their origins."

Ultimately the array will consist of 350 individual 20-foot antennas, providing a larger total collecting area than the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and higher resolution than the Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico.

TIME 100

Dr. Tarter was selected by TIME magazine editors who spanned the globe searching for persons whom they consider the most important and compelling people in the world at this moment in time. The TIME distinction is the latest in a long list of Tarter’s honors, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Aerospace, two Public Service Medals from NASA, and election as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2002.

What’s Next

Projected to come online in 2004-2005, the development of the Allen Telescope Array is marked by many innovations crafted with the express purpose of building a world-class state-of-the-art astronomical facility at a fraction of the price of existing radio telescopes. Although the physical structure of the Allen Telescope Array is dominated by the network of many small dishes–or "metal in the meadow"– what truly makes it distinctive is that it will be one of the first digital radio telescopes to allow astronomers to look at completely different frequencies at the same time, and to observe completely different parts of the sky concurrently. This means that the Allen Telescope Array is not just one instrument, but in effect, many.

When the Allen Telescope Array turns on sometime late this year, it will be capable of searching to the farthest of 17,000 nearby habitable stars, just beyond 300 parsecs (a distance of 978 light-years from Earth). For those search distances, an electromagnetic communication, if detected, would have begun broadcasting around a millennium ago, just about 1000 AD on a terrestrial calendar.

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