Discovering new worlds that are light years from Earth and opening up the mysteries of the universe are all in a day’s work for George Helou. A Lebanese native and AUB graduate, Helou’s groundbreaking research in the field of infrared astronomy lies at the forefront of astronomical science.
Originally from Jezzine in southern Lebanon, George Helou grew up fascinated with the night sky. “Over the mountains of Lebanon the skies were dark, the stars intense, and the Milky Way mesmerizing,” recalls Helou.
After graduating from Collège Sacré-Cœur des Frères, he attended the American University of Beirut, earning a bachelor of science in physics with distinction and a teaching diploma in science education in 1975, and winning the Philip K. Hitti Prize for Academic Excellence. Moving to the US, he received his PhD in astrophysics and radio science in 1980 from Cornell University. While at Cornell, he worked briefly with astronomy professors Carl Sagan and Frank Drake on the Golden Record carried by the Voyager spacecraft into interstellar space.
Helou was soon captivated by the field of infrared space astronomy and embarked on a career driven by a passion for understanding the observable universe. Infrared technology allows telescopes to gather information and “see” through the vast amount of interstellar dust in the universe that obstructs a clear view at normal optical wavelengths.
Since 1983, Helou has worked at Caltech, with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Currently, he is the executive director of IPAC, deputy director of the Spitzer Science Center, and a research professor of physics at Caltech.
Helou’s first NASA mission was with the pioneering team of scientists working on the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), which became the first space telescope to map the majority of the sky at infrared wavelengths. Since then, he has continued to make groundbreaking discoveries using ever-more sophisticated technology during what Helou has described as the “golden era in infrared astronomy.”
In a recent breakthrough, the Spitzer team at IPAC played a key role in the discovery around one star of seven Earth-sized planets, some of which may have liquid water and conditions hospitable to life. At 40 light years from Earth, the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system is close in terms of the vast expanse of the universe—which spans some 93 billion light years—but too far away for any rocket to reach. With future telescopes however, scientists can learn more about these planets’ atmospheres, determine if they have water, and search for signs of life.
Other highlights of Helou’s long and impactful career include being the first to describe the infrared colors of galaxies and explain them as the result of emission from interstellar dust warmed up by stars. His research has also elucidated critical aspects of the physics behind the formation of galaxies and their evolution over billions of years.
“George Helou has contributed to every major space infrared astronomy project as a scientist and a leader,” commented former president of Caltech Jean-Lou Chameau in 2011. “Our understanding of the galaxies and how they create stars has been greatly enhanced by the research centers George leads on behalf of Caltech and NASA.”
A committed son of Lebanon, Helou returns with his wife Andree and their two children to their home country on a regular basis. He seeks to enhance the culture of scientific learning and research there through lectures and other activities. In 2011, he was awarded the Coat of Arms of the Presidency by then-president Michel Sleiman and was honored by the group Diwan Ahlil Kalam. Helou was also elected to the prestigious Académie des Sciences du Liban and began serving as president in 2014.
Helou has also been awarded the NASA Exceptional Service Medal (1992), Exceptional Achievement Medal (2001), Public Service Medal (2004), and Exceptional Public Service Medal (2010). Most recently, Helou was honored with The Kuwait Prize in fundamental sciences (physics) from the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences, which recognizes the lifetime achievements of Arab scientists around the globe.
Helou has published some 300 scientific articles in professional journals resulting in 36,000 citations. He has lectured at over 50 international conferences and held invited positions at several European universities including Paris, Leiden, and Florence. He has delivered public lectures on astrophysics and cosmology in Pasadena, Los Angeles, New York, Dubai, Tokyo, and Beirut.