Tarter received her undergraduate education at Cornell University and her PhD from the University of California. Tarter has worked on a number of major scientific projects, most relating to the search for extraterrestrial life. As a graduate student, she worked on the radio-search project SERENDIP. She was project scientist for NASA's High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS) in 1992 and 1993 and subsequently director of Project Phoenix (HRMS reconfigured) under the auspices of the SETI Institute. She was co-creator with Margaret Turnbull of the HabCat in 2002, a principal component of Project Phoenix.
Tarter has published dozens of technical papers and lectures extensively both on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the need for proper science education. Her work in astrobiology and her success as a female scientist have garnered achievement awards from Women in Aerospace and NASA, amongst others. Tarter was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2002 and a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences in 2003. She was awarded the Telluride Tech Festival Award of Technology in 2001.
Tarter's astronomical work is illustrated in Carl Sagan's novel Contact. In the film version of Contact, the protagonist Ellie Arroway is played by Jodie Foster. Tarter conversed with the actress for months before and during filming.