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Jill Tarter steps down as director of SETI

Tarter will hand over the reins of directorship to physicist Gerry Harp, while assuming the role of a chief fundraiser, getting grants and donations to keep SETI institute in Mountain View, California afloat.

After spending 35 years scanning the universe for extraterrestrial intelligence, Jill Tartar, 68, the real-life astronomer who inspired Jodie Foster's character in the film 'Contact' is retiring.

Tarter is stepping down as the director of the non-profit Center for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) she co-founded in 1984, the organization's officials announced today.

She will hand over the reins of directorship to physicist Gerry Harp, while assuming the role of a chief fundraiser, getting grants and donations to keep SETI institute in Mountain View, California afloat.

"I may not detect a signal in my career, but what I can do is establish a stable source of funding for the next generation, and the next generation, and the generation after that," said Tarter. "That will be a legacy that I will be very proud of."

After the termination of government funding for NASA’s SETI program in 1993, Tarter who been with the institute for nearly a 10 years took over as director to secure private funding to continue the exploratory science.

An icon of SETI
After earning a Bachelor of Engineering Physics Degree at Cornell University, Tartar completed a Master's degree and PhD in astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley.

Her connection with SETI began 1970s when a small group of NASA scientists were developing radio equipment to look for alien life in the universe.

After the termination of government funding for NASA’s SETI program in 1993, Tarter who been with the institute for nearly a 10 years took over as director to secure private funding to continue the exploratory science.

In the decades since, she was at the helm shaping SETI’s sky scanning endeavors. Tarter was involved in the decade long “Project Phoenix” that used large telescopes in Australia, West Virginia and Puerto Rico for scrutiny of approximately 1,000 nearby star systems over a wide range of radio frequencies.

She spearheaded the SETI's efforts to build and operate the Allen Telescope Array, an instrument that will enormously increase the speed and the spectral search range, of the Institute’s hunt for signals.

Now, with NASA’s Kepler Telescope identifying new planetary systems, SETI has altered its search policy.

Tarter said, “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."

She added, “Exoplanets are real. We’ve gone from having 20-30 potential targets to having thousands of targets.”

Dr Tarter has been honored with two public service medals from NASA and became a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2002.

She was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine in 2004.