IPAC Executive Director George Helou Stepping Down at the End of 2024

It’s the end of an era for IPAC, and the start of a new one

Written by Marcy Harbut & Isabel Swafford 

After more than four decades of dedicated service to IPAC, 25 years of which he was serving as IPAC Executive Director, George Helou announced he is stepping down from the role at the end of the year.

“I have decided to continue as IPAC Executive Director until the end of this calendar year and then rotate off after that,” Helou said during a May 1 IPAC all-staff meeting. Noting that IPAC is involved with a mission launch almost every year for the next few years, Helou said this was a good time to hand over the reins to a successor. “The organization is healthy. The future is as promising as it has ever been,” he said. “In addition to our robust outlook of the future, we have an excellent administration and leadership team, and of course, a dedicated and energetic workforce.” 

Helou, who has made major contributions to our understanding of galaxy evolution and star formation, will stay on at Caltech as a Research Professor of Physics, a role he has maintained  since 1998. “I look forward to devoting more of my energies to research and other academic pursuits,” he said.

Fiona Harrison, Caltech’s Division Chair of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy (PMA) thanked Helou for his leadership. “George has done a tremendous job over the last many years, through trying times,” she said. “He has helped IPAC maintain a truly excellent organization that is really leading the way on so many science missions.”

Harrison added that PMA is assembling a committee to conduct an international search for a new Executive Director, with the goal of having a successor in place during the transition period. The search team will include representation from various stakeholders, and the search is open to both internal and external candidates.

As IPAC Executive Director, Helou provides oversight and leadership for all of the federally funded missions, projects, and science data archives based at IPAC, which include the Infrared Science Archive (IRSA), the Euclid NASA Science Data Center (ENSCI), the Roman Science Support Center, and the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE). 

A native of Lebanon, Helou studied physics at the American University of Beirut and later  earned his Ph.D in astrophysics and radio science from Cornell University. After completing postdoctoral work at Arcetri Observatory in Italy, he came to Caltech in 1983 as a research associate for the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) mission. IRAS established a data processing center on the Caltech campus known as the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, the origins of the IPAC we know today. 

For the following 40+ years, Helou served in staff scientist and leadership roles for various IPAC projects, including the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (NED), the Precision Segmented Reflector, and the Infrared Space Observatory (ISO). In 1997, he was named Acting Director of the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) Science Center, which was eventually renamed the Spitzer Science Center after the infrared observatory launched in 2003 as a part of NASA’s Great Observatory program. He was appointed IPAC Executive Director in 1999 and has served in that capacity since. 

Under Helou’s careful stewardship, IPAC grew and evolved from its early role as a data processing center for IRAS to supporting more than 20 missions and projects. Today, IPAC provides science operations, data archiving, community support, and engagement to the US astronomy community.

Helou has been recognized by his colleagues and governments with severals awards and honors, including the Gruber Cosmology Prize, a NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal, a NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, and the Coat of Arms of the Presidency of the Republic of Lebanon for “a distinguished career in astronomy.”

Although Helou will be stepping down from his role as IPAC Executive Director, he will remain connected to the IPAC community as a researcher and advisor. IPAC has experienced extraordinary evolution and has embarked on new ventures during Helou’s tenure, and IPAC will continue to flourish through its next exciting chapter.

Date: May 3rd, 2024
Category: IPAC News
Image Link: Helou_George-IPAC.png