Fascinated by the work of Frank Drake, a pioneer in the field, Tarter started her work on the search for extraterrestrial life in the mid-1970s. For some time she worked on a small NASA-sponsored program focused on that search.
The program was scheduled to expand in the early 1990s, but then-Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.) effectively killed it, famously saying the federal government shouldn’t be spending money in the search for little green men and UFOs. (It wasn’t.) SETI wasn’t allowed to compete for federal funds from 1993 until the last years of the George W. Bush administration.
SETI’s work continued under the nonprofit SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. A primary focus now is to look for signals that might be coming from the stars with orbiting exoplanets that have been identified by NASA’s Kepler telescope.
The Kepler space observatory has already found more than 2,300 “candidate” planets, and its discoveries have led astronomers and planetary scientists to conclude that there are probably hundreds of billions of planets in the Milky Way alone. Tarter is a member of the science team working with the Kepler data streaming in.
“Kepler has dramatically changed and improved how we do our SETI searches,” Tarter said. “Before we were pointing at stars that just might have planets and moons, and now we know they’re out there. Very exciting.”
She said she’s also encouraged by the growing international interest in SETI observation. Under the initiative of Japanese astronomer and observatory director Shin-ya Narusawa, a worldwide SETI effort to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Drake’s first efforts brought in 27 institutions from 15 nations.
The idea for the Northern California radio telescope array was born of SETI’s desire to have dedicated telescope time all its own, coupled with the pioneering work of William “Jack” Welch, former director of University of California at Berkeley’s Radio Astronomy Laboratory and of the fledgling Hat Creek facility. That Tarter and Welch are married no doubt lent additional energy to the joint venture.
Tarter says she hopes her greater role in fundraising will allow the Allen Array to grow to its initially planned size, but more immediately to keep the Center for SETI Research up and running.
“If during my career we don’t detect a signal, I’ll be disappointed, but still optimistic it will happen some day,” she said. “But if the SETI project withers and we don’t have a center to take advantage of the new discoveries that are sure to come . . . then I’ll consider my work very much unfinished.”