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Jill Tarter, cofounder of the SETI Institute
Margaret Turnbull, astronomer investigating alien biology
When she met Jill Tarter more than two decades ago, one of Margaret Turnbull’s first questions was, “How can somebody work with you?” Tarter was leading the Center for SETI Research at the time; Turnbull was an astronomy student. The next summer, Tarter took Turnbull on as an intern.
So began their hunt for aliens and alien tech, and in 2003 they published a catalog of potentially habitable star systems. Over the years, though, Turnbull moved away from the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. A NASA-funded astrobiologist, Turnbull now lives in Wisconsin and studies planets that might support life of any sort. Tarter, based in California, doesn’t want her starry-eyed former intern to forget about intelligent aliens. I arrange a Skype call between the old friends.
At the moment, Turnbull says, she’s part of the project team for a NASA space telescope called WFIRST, set for launch in 2025. Tarter wonders what advanced telescopes are actively looking for—beyond just distant celestial bodies. Surveys of the heavens, Tarter suggests, could be scanning for signs of sophisticated extraterrestrial civilizations. She presents a few ideas about what forms that may take. Aliens could have shiny orbital mirrors circling their planets. Or nuclear waste in their stars. Or spacecraft powered by laser pulses brighter than the sun.
Identifies as: “Earthling. You are one (if you’re not, be sure to let me know). You should proudly declare that fact on social media.”
“Does any of this make sense, Maggie?” Tarter asks. Turnbull nods, head down as she writes. “I’ve heard tell of some of these things over the years,” she says. “But when you’re separated from the SETI community for a while, you lose track of what’s going on.”
At the very least, Turnbull intends to use WFIRST to study the chemical signatures of nearby planets, in the hope of identifying ones that might harbor life. The telescope’s coronagraph blocks a foreign star’s bright light to reveal the dim planets circling it. Images of these exoplanets would be considerably sharper, Turnbull notes, if NASA would also send up the starshade.
This piques Tarter’s interest. Prototypes of the sci-fi-sounding instrument look like a meters-wide sunflower. Flying some 40,000 kilometers from WFIRST, it would cast a shadow over the telescope, further obscuring far-off sunshine. Then we could see and photograph smaller Earth-size planets, the kind where aliens are more likely to be. “It would be enough new information to keep a whole generation of astronomers busy,” Turnbull says. Alas, to date, “the starshade is not officially part of the mission,” Turnbull tells Tarter, who shakes her head.
Favorite sci-fi film: “Contact with Jodie Foster. A sequel is definitely overdue.”
The women have an idea. Existing telescopes can spot all sorts of strange cosmic phenomena—maybe even some of the possibilities Tarter rattled off earlier. If Turnbull can work to connect her colleagues to SETI, helping explore and communicate what their tools are capable of detecting, perhaps next-gen astronomers could pick up the existence of ETs. And what would that be like? the two wonder. “What do you think everybody is going to do after the champagne is poured?” Turnbull asks.
Contact, Turnbull decides: Contact would be like Contact—the 1997 movie in which Jodie Foster plays a version of Jill Tarter. Some fanatics in vans would freak out about the apocalypse. Others would praise alien saviors. There will be as many reactions as there are humans. And, perhaps, on some distant planet, as many reactions to our existence as there are alien residents.
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