Eleanor Francis Helin

Eleanor Francis Helin

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

Inducted in 1998

Eleanor F. Helin has been active in planetary science and astronomy at the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for over three decades. In the early 1970's, she 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 more than 200 in high inclination orbits, other rare and unique orbital types of asteroids, 20 comets, and approximately 30 percent of the near-earth asteroids discovered worldwide.

One of the most significant discoveries was that of asteroid (2062) Aten, the first asteroid found to have an orbit smaller than that of the Earth. It became a prototype for a new class of asteroids now numbering 30. She organized and coordinated the International Near-Earth Asteroid Survey (INAS) during the 1980's, encouraging and stimulating worldwide interest in asteroids. In recognition of Ms. Helin's accomplishments, she has received NASA's Exceptional Service Medal and asteroid (3267) Helin was named for her by the International Astronomical Union. The 1997 JPL Award for Excellence was presented to Ms. Helin in recognition of her leadership of the Near-Earth Asteroid (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 which runs the observing system through the night and transmits the 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.

After conducting the PCAS photographic search program from Palomar for nearly 25 years, Ms. 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.

Ms. Helin passed away on January 25, 2009.