The Institute for Space Research (IWF) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) gets a new head. The German astrophysicist and expert in the field of exoplanet research Christiane Helling (born 1969) will succeed the long-time director Wolfgang Baumjohann on October 1, as announced by the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Baumjohann is retiring. Helling prevailed over its three competitors in the public hearing.
Helling was appointed Director of the St. Andrews Center for Exoplanet Science and Lecturer in Astronomy and Physics at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 2016. She has also been a Senior Scientist at the Dutch Institute for Space Research since 2019. Her research focuses on the chemical diversity of planets outside our solar system and so-called brown dwarfs – celestial bodies that occupy a special position between stars and planets. This includes the investigation of cloud formation, its influence on the climate of the planets inaccessible to us, as well as its modeling through computer simulations.
“Christiane Helling convinced with her competence in the field of exoplanet research, her extensive international experience as well as her interdisciplinary research approach. I am sure that as the new director she will further expand the leading position of the institute in space research in Austria and beyond”, shared Anton Zeilinger, the President of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, by broadcast.
The scientific career of the scientist, who was born in Merseburg, Germany, began in 1999 after completing her dissertation at the Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Technical University of Berlin. Four years later she completed her habilitation at the TU Berlin. This was followed by a postdoctoral position at the Dutch University of Leiden (2005 – 2006) and a research grant from ESA, after which she was an Advanced Research Fellow of the Scottish University Physics Alliance at the University of St. Andrews. In 2011 she was visiting professor at the Institute for Astrophysics at the University of Vienna.
First three-dimensional weather simulation on exoplanets
In 2011, however, Helling was also awarded the Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). At that time, she was already dedicated to the ionization processes in ultra-cold atmospheres, cloud formation and discharge processes, the effects of lightning as a possible source of molecules at the beginning of all life, and the origin of radio and X-ray emissions from cool atmospheres on exoplanets. Her team succeeded in creating the first three-dimensional weather simulation of such a planet.
“The question of the place of mankind in the vastness of the universe is as old as mankind itself”, Helling was quoted on the occasion of her upcoming move to Graz. Through its research on planets inside and outside the solar system and their interactions with the parent stars, the IMF is playing a pioneering role in answering this question – in tandem with targeted technological developments, as Helling further emphasized. “With its increasingly interdisciplinary approaches, the institute will also contribute to important core topics of the ESA science program VOYAGE 2050”, the new director was convinced. VOYAGE 2050 is a long-term scientific planning program of the European Space Agency (ESA), e.g. for future space missions.
Potential candidate search took longer than planned
The search for the new head of the IMF took longer than planned: Wolfgang Baumjohann could actually have retired in August 2018, but continued to do so until the end of September due to the delay in finding candidates. Baumjohann has helped shape the Graz IWF since 2001 and has been its director since 2004. The IMF is currently involved in 23 space missions led by ESA, NASA or national space agencies in Japan, Russia, China and Korea. With around 100 employees, it is one of the largest institutes in the Academy.