Jill Tarter - Head of the SETI Program and Influence for "Contact" by Carl Sagan

Jill Tarter - Head of the SETI Program and Influence for "Contact" by Carl Sagan
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Jill Tarter is one of the most recognized scientists in the field of astronomy and radio telescope research. Growing up watching Flash Gordon cartoons, she developed a love for space and believed that extraterrestrial intelligence needed to exist. Bringing this philosophy to her professional life, she helped establish the prevalent use of radio telescopes to find life beyond Earth in the form of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program.

Facts About Jill Tarter

Birth: 1944

Birth Place: Upstate New York, United States

Field: Engineering; Radio Telescopes

Schooling: Cornell University; University of California at Berkeley

Key Achievement: Director of the Center for SETI Research

Notable Honors:

  • Women in Aerospace Lifetime Achievement Award (1989)
  • Chabot Observatory’s Person of the Year (1997)
  • Women of Achievement Award in the Science and Technology (1998)
  • Tesla Award of Technology (2001)
  • Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2002)
  • Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences (2003)
  • Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People (2004)
  • Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization (2005)
  • TED Prize (2009)

Above right: Jill Tarter at TED 2009. (Supplied by Steve Jurvetson at Flickr; Creative Commons Attribution 2.0;https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b4/Jill_Tarter_at_TED_in_2009.jpg)

Notable Achievements in Astronomy

SETI@home Multi-Beam screensaver

  • Worked on the radio-search project SERENDIP as a graduate student. The project used a “piggy-back” method to analyze information from deep space radio telescopes to locate extraterrestrial life.
  • Project scientist for NASA’s High Resolution Microwave Survey in 1992 and 1993. The mission scanned ten million frequencies to locate alien intelligence using radio telescopes, the most notable of which was the Arecibo Ionaspheric Observatory in Puerto Rico.
  • Director of Project Phoenix with the SETI Institute, analyzing the 800 systems most likely to support life within a 200 light year radius of Earth. No signals were found when the project concluded in 2004.
  • Co-created the Catalog of Nearby Habitable Systems in 2002 with Margaret Turnbull. Known as HabCat, it catalogs all star systems with possible habitable systems. As of 2009, there were 17,129 systems in the list.
  • In 2004, she began to serve on the management board for the Allen Telescope Array. The project is a collaborative effort between the UC Berkeley Radio Astronomy Laboratory and the SETI Institute.
  • Through the National Science Foundation and NASA, Tarter has created two educational platforms for school students in the U.S. The first is called “Life in the Universe,” a series of teaching guides geared towards grades three through nine. The second is “Voyages Through Time” for high school students, discussing the origins of the Universe, Earth, life and technology.
  • Tarter has successfully published a number of technical papers and lectured worldwide on science education and the search for extraterrestrial life.

Above right: SETI@home. (Supplied by Namazu-tron; Release through Lesser GPL authorization; https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b4/SETI%40home_Multi-Beam_screensaver.png)

Amazing Facts

The most notable instance of popular culture expression about Jill Tarter’s work comes in the form of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact. The protagonist of the story, Ellie Arroway, is allegedly based directly on Tarter herself. For the film version of the story, Jodie Foster played Arroway and worked with Tarter for months before production to understand the science behind her work. However, according to Carolyn Porco, an imaging scientist for the Voyager, Cassini and New Horizons missions, Sagan based the character on a combination of a number of women in astronomy as well as his wife, Ann Druyan. As Porco states, “With all due respect to Jill and her mind-bending work, this statement is categorically untrue, an urban myth.”

Additional Resources

CNN: Scientist Probes Outer Space for Aliens

Dr. Jill Tarter Looking to “Make Contact”

Searching the Sky: Jill Tarter

SETI Staff: Dr. Jill Tarter

This post is part of the series: Famous Women in Space Science

Women play an integral role in astronomy and space science. Among the most prominent of these women are Carolyn Porco and Jill Tarter, both important figures in the continued exploration of space.

  1. Famous Women Working in Space Science and Astronomy
  2. Nothing But the Facts About Jill Tarter
  3. Nothing But the Facts About Carolyn Porco