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Scientists aren't just taking living things into space. For more than 50 years, they've been looking for life that might already be there.

That effort is now running short of money, as Amy Standen of member station KQED reports.

AMY STANDEN: It takes a certain type of person to devote an entire career to chasing something she'll probably never find. One such person is Jill Tarter.

Dr. JILL TARTER (Director, Center for SETI Research, SETI Institute): I'm the director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

STANDEN: SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Mountain View is a long way from Hollywood. There, Jill Tarter's life was given a very different arc, at least as portrayed by Jodie Foster in the 1997 film "Contact."

In this scene, Ellie Arroway, Foster's character, hears the unmistakable signature of extraterrestrial intelligence over her headphones.

(Soundbite of movie, "Contact")

Ms. JODIE FOSTER (Actor): (as Ellie Arroway) Is anybody awake in there? I'm moving the array. Confirm.

Mr. GEOFFREY BLAKE (Actor): (As Fisher) Boss has a bogey.

STANDEN: In real life, of course, the search has been a lot quieter. Tarter is in her 60s now. She wears her gray hair in a short, no-nonsense cut. She's been working on this for more than 40 years.

Dr. TARTER: I don't know whether anyone ever will find a signal. I certainly don't know whether I will.

STANDEN: Back when Tarter started at the SETI Institute, the project received funding from NASA. But that support ended in 1993. Since then, she and others have spent almost as much time searching for money as they have searching for ET.

Then, three years ago, the SETI Institute marked what felt like a turning point, the opening of the Allen Telescope Array, a field of 20-foot-wide radio telescopes in California's rural Hat Creek Valley funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Thanks to this Allen Telescope Array, which is jointly managed with the University of California-Berkeley, SETI scientists could scan the skies full-time, hoping a clear, telltale radio signal would stand out from the universe's background hiss.

Dr. TARTER: We're looking for signals that are compressed in frequency, because nature doesn't do that. Technology does.

STANDEN: Now, to understand SETI, you have to understand this: that we humans are a very young species on a very young planet, and we've only had modern technology for the last couple hundred years. Tarter says it's a cosmic blip.

Dr. TARTER: Our galaxy is 10 billion years old. And most of the stars in our region of the galaxy are about a billion years older than our sun.

STANDEN: In this broader scope of cosmic time, we humans are practically newborns.

Dr. TARTER: We don't know if there are any other technologies out there. But if there are, we can be pretty sure they're older and more capable than we are.

STANDEN: Capable, she hopes, of beaming high-power radio waves that our telescopes could eventually pick up. But this is a long shot, perhaps the longest long shot in science, says Caleb Scharf, director of Astrobiology at Columbia University.

Professor CALEB SCHARF (Columbia University): All of those arguments ultimately rest on big assumptions that tend to be very human-centric.

STANDEN: For instance, that another civilization would use radio signals at all or would have any interest in finding us. And then there's there problem of timing.

Prof. SCHARF: Even if there were many, many technological civilizations in our galaxy, the chances of one of them being radio loud...

STANDEN: That is, broadcasting a loud radio signal...

Prof. SCHARF ...right at this instant, right at the time that we have the right technology to listen for it, the odds seem to shrink a lot.

STANDEN: But recently, something happened that gave those odds a modest boost.

Unidentified Man: Engines start. One, zero and liftoff of the Delta-2 Rocket with Kepler on a search for planets in some way like our own.

STANDEN: NASA's Kepler Telescope found signs of what it was looking for, dozens of possible planets that might be similar to Earth, orbiting distant stars like our sun.

Professor DIMITAR SASSELOV (Director, Harvard Origins of Life Initiative; Co-Investigator, Kepler Mission): Some of these are potentially habitable planets.

STANDEN: Dimitar Sasselov is on the Kepler team. He also directs Harvard's Origins of Life Initiative.

Prof. SASSELOV: This is where we should be looking for the signals coming from other civilizations to start with. SETI is already in possession of that list.

STANDEN: But as of April, the SETI Institute has had to file that list away indefinitely. That's because California's budget is in crisis. Facing a $26 billion deficit, the state has made major cuts across the public university system. UC Berkeley says it can no longer afford to operate the Allen Array. The project is officially in hibernation.

Jill Tarter says she's frustrated by the holdup.

Dr. TARTER: Never before have we known such good potential targets at which to point our telescopes. And that's what we want to do.

STANDEN: Tarter wants to raise $5 million in private money to search the Kepler planets. Caleb Scharf, the Columbia astrobiologist we heard from earlier, says he thinks that's a bargain. Sure, SETI is a long shot, but science needs long shots.

Prof. SCHARF: Too often in modern science, we kind of narrow down our vision. We narrow down what we want to look at a little too much.

STANDEN: SETI, on the other hand, swings for the fences. The money may never pay off, says Scharf, but we'll never know unless we try.

Prof. SCHARF: I think the best argument for SETI is simply that we do not know. The only real solution is to look and to look in as broad a way as you can.

STANDEN: Jill Tarter, for her part, says she knows she probably won't find ET in her lifetime. To find SETI a reliable source of funding, that would be achievement enough.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen in San Francisco.

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