Women in Technology Hall of Fame

Eleanor Francis Helin

Eleanor Francis Helin

Member of Technical Staff, Planetary Scientist and Astronomer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Inducted in 1998

Eleanor F. Helin passed away in 2009. She was active in planetary science and astronomy at the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for over three decades. Caltech Optical Observatories hosted the Helin Commemorative Workshop in 2010 to honor the findings of Eleanor and her husband, Ronald. Palomar Observatory opened an exhibit in dedication to her work on the Schmidt telescope in 2013.

Eleanor earned the 1997 JPL Award for Excellence through her substantial contributions in the form of her leadership of the Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) program. She has also received NASA’s Group Achievement Award for the NEAT Team.

In operation since December 1995, NEAT is the first autonomous observing program. No JPL personnel are on-site. Only the JPL Sunspark computer observes and transmits data back to JPL each morning for team member review and confirmation. NEAT has detected over 26,000 objects, including 31 near-earth asteroids; two long-period comets; and the unique object, 1996 PW, the most eccentric asteroid known, which moves in a long-period, comet-like orbit.

One of the most significant discoveries was that of asteroid (2062) Aten, the first asteroid found to have an orbit smaller than Earth’s. Aten became a prototype for a new class of asteroids now numbering 30. Eleanor organized and coordinated the International Near-Earth Asteroid Survey during the 80s, encouraging and stimulating worldwide interest in asteroids.

In the early 70s, Eleanor initiated the Palomar Planet-Crossing Asteroid Survey (PCAS) from Palomar Observatory. This program is responsible for the discovery of thousands of asteroids of all types, including over 200 in high inclination orbits, other rare and unique orbital types of asteroids, 20 comets, and approximately 30% of the near-earth asteroids discovered worldwide.

After conducting the PCAS photographic search program from Palomar for nearly 25 years, Helin concentrated on a new, upgraded search program using electronic sensors on a large aperture telescope. She is the principal investigator for this program operating from JPL.

In recognition of Eleanor’s accomplishments, she received NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal and asteroid (3267) Helin is named for her by the International Astronomical Union.