The SETI Institute lands topnotch NASA talent as Director

(Mountain View, CA) More than two decades after the SETI Institute was founded in 1984, Frank Drake, the long-time Director of the Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe, has announced a successor, David Morrison.

Morrison joins the SETI Institute staff as the Director of the Carl Sagan Center for Study of Life in the Universe. Appropriately, Carl Sagan’s first doctoral student [David Morrison] is now in a unique position to revisit his original roots and succeed legendary SETI pioneer and mentor Frank Drake, who is retiring and now joins the SETI Institute Board of Directors.

Dr. Morrison is a leading space scientist and science manager. In addition to his new job at the SETI Institute, he retains (part time) his previous position at NASA Ames Research Center, where he is Director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute and Senior Scientist for Astrobiology. Previously, Morrison served as Director of Space at NASA Ames, and before that as Professor and Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Hawaii. Dr. Morrison is internationally known for his research on small bodies in the solar system, and he has published more than 155 technical papers and a dozen books, including five university-level textbooks.

Morrison has been a long-time supporter of the SETI Institute, dating back to 1988 when he first arrived in the Bay-Area: “The SETI Institute has partnered with scientists at NASA Ames in a teaming arrangement that has greatly benefited both organizations. The Institute played an especially important role in the development of the new multidisciplinary field of astrobiology. I always hoped that I would eventually find a way to work more directly with them”, said Morrison.

At the Carl Sagan Center, the staff focuses on a wide set of disciplines ranging from observing and modeling the precursors of life in the depths of outer space to studies of Earth, where we are attempting to learn more about how life began and how its many diverse forms have survived and evolved. The Carl Sagan Center boasts a wide range of research and projects that attract a large, multi-talented staff with diverse backgrounds and scientific specialties, creating an ideal environment for some of today’s most innovative work in the science world.

“There are many outstanding space scientists and astrobiologists in the Carl Sagan Center, and our leadership role in the study of life in the universe is sure to grow”, says Morrison. 

Research Thrust: 

Art Imitates Life: Long-awaited Spore Video Game Based on Real Scientific Search

Electronic Arts’ Newest Release Based On SETI’s Search For Extraterrestrial Life

Electronic Arts’ eagerly awaited video game, Spore, which was released yesterday, is based on serious scientific research that is out of this world. Literally. The game, which incubated for five years in the studios of the world’s leading developer of video games, takes much of its inspiration from the real-world research of theSETI Institute, an organization dedicated to the deep scientific understanding of life in all its forms on Earth and to exploration of the cosmos for evidence of life, especially intelligent life.

In partnership with EA, the SETI Institute is giving gamers a special opportunity to join its membership organization, TeamSETI, at reduced cost. The Institute also plans to augment its web site (www.seti.org) so members will be able to access interactive activities, get special updates on the Institute’s research (as it applies to the scenarios found in Spore), and read game-related blogs by scientists Frank Drake, director of the SETI Institute’s Carl Sagan Center for the study of life in the Universe, Jill Tarter, Center director for SETI research, and many of the Institute’s other scientists.

Spore is the latest brainchild of Will Wright, who once wished to become an astronaut and is best known for designing the hit video simulation games “ Sim City” and “The Sims.” Wright notes, “I’ve long been interested in the work of the SETI Institute because the people there are trying to find real alien life using massive telescopes and other tools of science. Microbes on Mars or intelligent beings on a distant planet – they’re investigating it all.”

Spore allows players to create cosmic life ranging from microbes to complex sentients, and have them form social groups and even reshape galaxies. The Creature Creator, a Spore software tool that’s already available, allows anyone to quickly design their own “aliens” for use in Spore, starting with a basic body form and adding appendages, facial features, and various skin textures and colors.

Even serious scientists can quickly become enamored of this interactive Mr. Alien Potato Head:

“I’ve been searching the skies for signs of intelligent life for more than four decades,” said Frank Drake, Senior Scientist at the SETI Institute and the man who pioneered the use of large radio telescopes to hunt for signals from other societies. “I’ve often given thought to what aliens might be like. Well, this is the first time I could quickly bring to life a hypothetical extraterrestrial, even if only on my computer screen.”

The SETI Institute’s flagship search for intelligent beings elsewhere is about to gain an impressive boost as the first antennas of the Allen Telescope Array – a massive radio instrument located in the Cascade Mountains of California – are used to hunt for signals coming from the dense star clouds that lie in the central regions of the Milky Way. Eventually, the Allen Telescope Array will speed SETI experiments by hundreds and thousands of times. Updates will be ported to Spore TeamSETI members regularly.

“Young people study science because they’ve become emotionally involved,” notes Drake. “Many of my colleagues point to movies or sci-fi novels that first spurred their interest. Well, tomorrow’s generation of scientists could very well get their start today playing games like Spore.”


Research Thrust: 

Engaging Artists and Science

Tenerife, Canary Islands – March 25, 2011 – Among the most profound enterprises in human history is the search for our beginnings and our place among the stars. Utilizing the excitement of SETI research and NASA science, the SETI Institute is extending an invitation to that seemingly most unscientific of creatures: the artist.

The Institute’s new Artist-In-Residence (AIR) Program channels one of the most potent forces in our world – human creative energy – to explore worlds beyond. A fellowship program and think tank will foster collaboration between a new generation of science leaders and artists, at a moment in history in which we are moving ever closer to a unified field theory. “We see lots of opportunities to open up this research to the world,” says Jill Tarter, Director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute, and 2009 TED Prize winner.

The Institute recognizes how the principles that order the universe find expression in the grand architecture of a Shostakovich symphony, in the compressed power of a Kahlo canvas, in the violent stillness of a Kurosawa film.

Artist and Guggenheim Fellow Charles Lindsay has been selected as the Institute’s first Artist in Residence. In collaboration with prominent Hollywood visual effects artist Eric Hanson, his new installation will form the centerpiece of this year’s Starmus Festival*, a major international exposition of space, art, and music. “Film is a wonderful way to engage the public in the depth and fascinations of science,” says Hanson, Professor of Animation and Digital Arts at the University of Southern California. “But there is nothing more powerful in the human experience than imagining other life existing throughout the universe.”

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Award-Winning Astronomer and Researcher Honored in February 2009 Issue

Hi-Resolution Image Available Upon Request

Mountain View, CA -- Astronomer Dr. Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, has been named one of “The Most Influential Women in Technology” by Fast Company magazine. Dr. Tarter’s search for extraterrestrial signals is often taken as the role model for Jodie Foster’s portrayal in the film “Contact,” The article, which appears in February issue, recognizes technology leaders who “…are an inspiration for everyone, demonstrating what can be achieved through creativity and hard work.”

Tarter is Director of the Institute’s Center for SETI Research, and also holder of the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI. She is one of the few researchers to have devoted her career to hunting for signs of sentient beings elsewhere, and there are few aspects of this field that have not been affected by her work.

Tarter was the lead for Project Phoenix, a decade-long SETI scrutiny of about 750 nearby star systems, using telescopes in Australia, West Virginia and Puerto Rico. While no clearly extraterrestrial signal was found, this was the most comprehensive targeted search for artificially generated cosmic signals ever undertaken. Now Tarter heads up the Institute’s efforts, in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley, to build and operate the Allen Telescope Array, a massive new instrument that will eventually comprise 350 antennas, each 6 meters in diameter. This telescope will be able to enormously increase the speed, and the spectral search range, of the Institute’s hunt for signals. A subset of the full array began operations in the Fall of 2007.

The SETI Institute

The SETI Institute is a unique team of world class scientists dedicated to understanding the origin and nature of life on Earth and its possible existence throughout the universe. The Institute accomplishes this via:

Research - Fundamental and significant investigations into the workings of life, and how and where it might have arisen.

Exploration - Examining life in its most extreme forms and locations on Earth, exploring our solar system for evidence of microbial life, and searching the cosmos for indications of distant life, especially intelligent life.

Education - Education and Outreach programs inviting students to participate in our search for life in the universe, and sharing the wonder of our science with the public.

The SETI Institute is bringing together some of the best and brightest minds in science today to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos.

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WASHINGTON -- NASA’s History Program Office is releasing a new book that examines the different psychological factors that affect astronauts during space travel, especially long-duration missions.

The book, “Psychology of Space Exploration: Contemporary Research in Historical Perspective,” is a collection of essays from leading space psychologists. They place their recent research in historical context by looking at changes in space missions and psychosocial science over the past 50 years. What makes up the “right stuff” for astronauts has changed as the early space race gave way to international cooperation. Different coping skills and sensibilities are now necessary to communicate across cultural boundaries and deal with interpersonal conflicts.

“The essays give a comprehensive overview of this complex subject, providing novel insights for behavioral researchers and historians alike,” NASA’s Chief Historian Bill Barry said. “The data is important as we work to send astronauts to Mars, which will mean longer missions without real-time communication with family and friends leading to increased potential psychosocial stresses.”

The book’s editor, Douglas A. Vakoch, is a professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. He also is a manager at the SETI Institute.

Research Thrust: 


WASHINGTON -- Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered a fourth moon orbiting the icy dwarf planet Pluto. The tiny, new satellite, temporarily designated P4, was uncovered in a Hubble survey searching for rings around the dwarf planet.

The new moon is the smallest discovered around Pluto. It has an estimated diameter of 8 to 21 miles (13 to 34 km). By comparison, Charon, Pluto's largest moon, is 648 miles (1,043 km) across, and the other moons, Nix and Hydra, are in the range of 20 to 70 miles in diameter (32 to 113 km).

"I find it remarkable that Hubble's cameras enabled us to see such a tiny object so clearly from a distance of more than 3 billion miles (5 billion km)," said Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., who led this observing program with Hubble.

The finding is a result of ongoing work to support NASA's New Horizons mission, scheduled to fly through the Pluto system in 2015. The mission is designed to provide new insights about worlds at the edge of our solar system. Hubble's mapping of Pluto's surface and discovery of its satellites have been invaluable to planning for New Horizons' close encounter.

"This is a fantastic discovery," said New Horizons' principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. "Now that we know there's another moon in the Pluto system, we can plan close-up observations of it during our flyby."

The new moon is located between the orbits of Nix and Hydra, which Hubble discovered in 2005. Charon was discovered in 1978 at the U.S. Naval Observatory and first resolved using Hubble in 1990 as a separate body from Pluto.

The dwarf planet's entire moon system is believed to have formed by a collision between Pluto and another planet-sized body early in the history of the solar system. The smashup flung material that coalesced into the family of satellites observed around Pluto.

Lunar rocks returned to Earth from the Apollo missions led to the theory that our moon was the result of a similar collision between Earth and a Mars-sized body 4.4 billion years ago. Scientists believe material blasted off Pluto's moons by micrometeoroid impacts may form rings around the dwarf planet, but the Hubble photographs have not detected any so far.

"This surprising observation is a powerful reminder of Hubble's ability as a general purpose astronomical observatory to make astounding, unintended discoveries," said Jon Morse, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

P4 was first seen in a photo taken with Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 on June 28. It was confirmed in subsequent Hubble pictures taken on July 3 and July 18. The moon was not seen in earlier Hubble images because the exposure times were shorter. There is a chance it appeared as a very faint smudge in 2006 images, but was overlooked because it was obscured.

Hubble is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc. in Washington.



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