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SIRTF Profiles: George Helou

IPAC Executive Director/SSC Deputy Director

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Like many astronomers, I was captivated by the stars at a tender age. Over the mountains of Lebanon the skies were dark, the stars intense, and the Milky Way mesmerizing. The fascination slowly turned into a career path as Math and Physics became increasingly fun topics, books promised infinite vistas of discovery, and college at the American University of Beirut brought me into modern physics and closer to graduate school. Twenty-eight years almost to the day before the launch of SIRTF, I arrived in the U.S. to study for a Ph.D. in astronomy at Cornell University. Cornell was an exciting place, with a lot going on, from radio astronomy to the Viking landings. I enjoyed being around all this, and tried to get involved in as many things as possible. But even though I worked with Carl Sagan one summer, I did not see space science as a serious career option.

I got started in infrared space astronomy in 1983, twenty years again almost to the day, before the launch of SIRTF. Recruited by Tom Soifer and encouraged by Jim Houck, I joined the IRAS (InfraRed Astronomical Satellite) mission team, who were making history with the first major mission to map the infrared sky from space. The team was so flooded with data that they took me in even though I had virtually no experience in infrared astronomy. The infrared sky as it was being revealed by IRAS fascinated me, and has continued to amaze me with each new revelation.

The IRAS mission lasted ten months, but it generated enough data to keep astronomers busy through the eighties. The nineties were the decade of ISO (the Infrared Space Observatory), a European mission with NASA participation. I served on the ISO Science Team and learned a lot about space observatories, worked on loads of ISO data, and learned even more about galaxies. Galaxies have always been at the center of my research interests, challenging me to understand their complex properties, and figure out what makes them tick, how they come about and how they evolve. A rich and intricate portrait of galaxies emerged from IRAS and ISO data, a portrait one could not imagine by looking at the visible images. SIRTF will add more detail to this portrait, answer many questions and pose others, and inspire the next round of infrared missions.

SIRTF was in the works for at least two decades, but it was only in 1996 that I joined the team working to make it a reality. I helped mostly by designing the science operations, figuring out how to translate the scientific questions into observing activities, how to inform the observers and help them use SIRTF in the best way, how to take the raw data from the instruments and turn them into scientifically meaningful data for astronomers, and how to organize the science center and its interactions with other parts of the SIRTF project and with researchers worldwide. Since 1999 I have served as the Executive Director of IPAC (Infrared Processing and Analysis Center) in addition to my duties as Deputy Director of the SIRTF Science Center and a member of the faculty at Caltech.

Today I feel fortunate to participate in this heady mixture of technology, imagination, excellence and team work, all fueled by a most basic human drive, curiosity about our world. Above the atmosphere the sky is cold, the galaxies infrared-bright, and the soft glow of the distant universe mesmerizing.

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