Christiane Helling directs ÖAW space research

The Institute for Space Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) is getting a new director. Astrophysicist Christiane Helling succeeds long-time director Wolfgang Baumjohann, who is retiring. Helling prevailed over her three competitors in a public hearing.
Astrophysikerin Christiane Helling
Astrophysicist Christiane Helling (

"The question of mankind's place in the vastness of the universe is as old as mankind itself. Through its research on planets within and outside the solar system and their interactions with the parent stars, the Institute for Space Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences is playing a pioneering role in answering this question - and doing so in tandem with targeted technological developments. With increasingly interdisciplinary approaches, the institute will thus also contribute significantly to important core topics of the ESA science program VOYAGE 2050," says Christiane Helling about her move to Graz and the future of the institute. VOYAGE 2050 is a long-term scientific planning program of the European Space Agency (ESA), for example for future space missions.

"The Academy's Institute for Space Research has been taking Austria into space for 50 years through its participation in international missions. It has thus made its Graz location the space capital of the country. This is also a major achievement of its long-time director Wolfgang Baumjohann. Christiane Helling has convinced us with her expertise in the field of exoplanet research, her extensive international experience and her interdisciplinary approach to research. I am sure that as the new director she will further strengthen the Institute's leading position in space research in Austria and beyond," says Anton Zeilinger, President of the ÖAW.

Exoplanets and brown dwarfs

Helling has been director of the St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science since 2016 and a lecturer in astronomy and physics at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. She has also been a Senior Scientist at the Netherlands Institute for Space Research since 2019. Her research focuses on the chemical diversity of exoplanets and so-called brown dwarfs, celestial bodies that occupy a special position between stars and planets. This includes the study of cloud formation, its influence on the climate of exoplanets, and its modeling through complex computer simulations.
The climate on other planets within and outside our solar system was also the subject of her Starting Grant, which she was awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) in 2011. In it, Helling addressed ionization processes in ultracold atmospheres, including 3D cloud formation and discharge processes, the effects of lightning as a possible source of pre-biotic molecules, and the origin of radio and X-ray emissions from such cool atmospheres. Under her leadership, the ERC grant succeeded in producing the first three-dimensional weather simulation of an exoplanet.

Beyond the boundaries of expertise

Christiane Helling not only looks to distant worlds, but also beyond the boundaries of her own discipline. The St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science, which she directs, demonstrates how fruitful cross-disciplinary collaboration can be. There, researchers from the fields of physics and astronomy, geography, philosophy, linguistics and international relations come together to study the extrasolar planets in the context of the natural sciences and the humanities.

The "CHAMELEON" training network, funded by the European Union under the Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellowship, which Helling has been coordinating since 2019 and in which six European universities are cooperating, is also interdisciplinary. With the help of new findings from astrophysics, numerical chemistry, experimental and theoretical physics, mathematics and computer sciences, this network is working on virtual laboratories to study exoplanets that are inaccessible to us.

IWF involved in 23 space missions

Helling's scientific career began in 1999 at the Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Technical University (TU) of Berlin following her dissertation, for which she was awarded the Tiburtius Prize of the Berlin Universities. Four years later she habilitated at the TU Berlin. This was followed by a post-doctoral position at Leiden University in the Netherlands. From 2005 to 2006 she was a research fellow of the European Space Agency (ESA) and subsequently an Advanced Research Fellow of the Scottish University Physics Alliance at the University of St Andrews. The co-founder of the AstroFrauenNetzwerk working group in the Astronomische Gesellschaft in Germany is also no stranger to Austria: A visiting professorship took Helling to the Institute of Astrophysics at the University of Vienna in 2011.

Christiane Helling succeeds ÖAW member Wolfgang Baumjohann, who has played a key role in shaping the institute since 2001, on October 1, 2021. The IWF is the only institute in the country that develops and builds space-qualified measuring instruments on a large scale. It is currently involved in a total of 23 international space missions led by ESA, NASA or national space agencies in Japan, Russia, China and Korea. With about 100 employees, it is one of the largest institutes of the ÖAW.