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PRESS RELEASE: SETI Institute Celebrates Jill Tarter’s 35 Years of Research

From a press release…

Astronomer who inspired Jodie Foster’s character in “Contact” retires as Director of the Center for SETI Research
Astronauts, Scientists and Celebrities to gather in Santa Clara to salute Tarter June 22 – 24

Mountain View, California – After thirty-five years of searching the skies for signs of intelligence beyond Earth, astronomer Jill Tarter is turning over the scientific reins to new leadership at the non-profit SETI Institute. SETI Institute Physicist Gerry Harp will succeed Tarter as Director of Center for SETI Research while Tarter will focus her time on fundraising for SETI research as the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI within the scientific organization.

“For many years working at SETI Institute I’ve worn two hats: the Bernard Oliver chair, and the Director of the Center for SETI Research,” said Tarter, who was a prototype for the character Ellie Arroway in Carl Sagan’s novel and film “Contact.” “My colleague Dr. Gerry Harp will step into the role to continue our strong tradition of excellent research, freeing me up to focus on finding stable funding for it. I want to make the endowment of SETI research a success, so that my colleagues now, and in the future, can focus on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence for all of us.”

The SETI Institute is celebrating Tarter’s research career at the upcoming SETIcon II, June 22-24 in Silicon Valley at the Santa Clara Hyatt. SETIcon II is a public convention that draws together more than 60 scientists, artists and entertainers to explore our place in space and the future of the search for life in the universe through presentations, panels, exhibits and films. Tarter will be celebrated at a gala event on Saturday evening, June 23. Speakers include Astronaut Mae Jemison, astronomer and “Drake Equation” author Frank Drake, and Star Trek actor Robert Picardo. Tickets are available now at

Tarter, 68, signed on to the NASA SETI program in the 1970s when a small group of NASA researchers were developing novel equipment and strategies to make systematic radio SETI observations. Since the demise of that program by Congressional fiat in 1993, she has led the efforts at the non-profit SETI Institute to continue the work. Tarter spearheaded a decade-long program, dubbed Project Phoenix, which used large antennas in Australia, Puerto Rico and West Virginia to examine approximately one thousand nearby star systems over an unprecedented wide range of radio frequencies. Astronomers suspected that planets existed around other stars, but that was only a hypothesis – until 1995. Recently NASA’s Kepler telescope, launched in 2009, has discovered thousands of new planetary systems, some of them containing planets as small as the Earth.

“Kepler has been a paradigm shift—starting with the first data release in 2010 and second in 2011 and third in 2012, we have altered our SETI search strategy. We are no longer pointing our telescopes at Sun-like stars in hopes of finding something; we are now observing stars where we KNOW there are planets. Exoplanets are real. We’ve gone from having 20-30 potential targets to having thousands of targets. Kepler is telling us WHERE to look, and we are focusing there,” said Tarter.

Kepler planet-hunters are key presenters at SETIcon II. Dr. Geoff Marcey (UC Berkeley), Deborah Fisher (Yale University), Jon Jenkins and Doug Caldwell (Kepler Mission and SETI Institute) will be sharing the excitement of discovering exoplanets.

“SETI research experiments are funded by private donations, limiting how quickly we can search these newly discovered planets for intelligent life,” said Tarter. “The best reason to invest in SETI research is because it is an investment in our own future. The scientist Phil Morrison said that ‘SETI is the archeology of the future.’ Think about it. If we detect a signal, we could learn about THEIR past (finite speed of light, and long distances) and the possibility of OUR future. Successful detection means that on average technologies last for a long time, that’s the only way another technological civilization can line up with us in time and space. Understanding that it is possible to find solutions to our terrestrial problems and to become a very old civilization, because someone else has managed to do just that, is hugely important! Knowing that there can be a future may motivate us to achieve it.”

Jill Tarter will be one of the featured speakers and celebrated at the gala event at the SETI Institute’s public event, SETIcon II, to be held at the Santa Clara Hyatt Hotel on June 22 – 24. Tickets are available now at

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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