For many alien enthusiasts, Jill Tarter is synonymous with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. As the SETI Institute’s research director — and the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in Contact — she’s done more than anyone to raise the search for cosmic company from a fringe effort to serious science.
After receiving a TED prize in 2009, Tarter had grand plans for the Allen Telescope Array, a proposed field of 350 big-nosed radio dishes that would be the world’s only dedicated SETI telescope, as well as its most sensitive. But this week, budget cuts forced the ATA’s existing 42 dishes into hibernation mode. The rest are now just a dream.
Wired.com talked with Jill Tarter about the shutdown and what it means for the future of SETI.
Wired.com: The dishes are in hibernation mode now. What exactly does that mean?
Tarter: It means the array runs on a smaller staff. We keep the caretaker staff. We keep power on the antennas, so the cryogenics stay cold and they don’t get harmed. We just put them in a safe mode. But you can’t operate them, you can’t take data.
Wired.com: Does that mean you’re expecting to bring it back up?
Tarter: We’re doing everything we possibly can to bring it out of hibernation. But that, you know, that requires new funding.
We’re talking with the Air Force, and we’re hopeful for that. But we also need the public to step up and support SETI research, to keep that on an even keel. This unfortunate situation, coming at just the wrong time, when we were just beginning a two-year search of these Kepler worlds — we hope people understand the irony of that.
Wired.com: Tell me about the Kepler project. What were you going to do there?
Tarter: Before Kepler launched, we knew about a couple of hundred exoplanets. Most of those were big or right next to their stars. Not likely to be habitable. The Kepler worlds are different. There are 68 of them that are about the same size as Earth, of which it’s calculated that 54 may be in the “Goldilocks” habitable zone. And there’s 1,235 of them altogether, which [extrapolated] gives us the statistic that we can expect 50 billion planets in the galaxy, and 500 million of those are likely to be habitable.
The Kepler results have changed the way we can do our research. We can now point where we know there are likely to be good planet candidates. That’s a change. This is a fantastic new bounty of potential and information.
Wired.com: So you had specific plans to go after the Kepler planets directly?
Tarter: Yes. We’d scoped out a two-year observing program. There’s something called a “water hole” from 1 to 10 gigahertz, where the universe is naturally quiet. We want to search through that.
Wired.com: That makes it a particularly bad time to be shutting down the telescopes.
Artist’s rendition inspired by data from the Kepler telescope, courtesy of NASA.
Tarter: It’s a hugely frustrating time. [SETI senior astronomer] Seth Shostak is all over the place with a great one-liner: “It’s as if the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria were called back to dry dock.”
The other thing we’re doing now, which we’ve never done before, is trying to get the world involved. We’re trying to open up this search so that it isn’t just done in a silo by a tiny priesthood of astronomers. More…