Women in Space: Prof. Dr. Christiane Helling

Since October 2011, Graz has been enriched by a great physicist, space researcher and professor.
Prof. Dr. Christiane Helling (Source: Chris Scott Photography)

Since 2021, Prof. Dr. Christiane Helling has not only become the new Director of the Space Research Institute (IWF) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, but also a Professor in Space Sciences at Graz University of Technology as well as Honorary Professor of Physics & Astronomy at the University of St Andrews (UK).

Her working life is threefold as an institute's director of an international research institute, as researcher as well as head of a research group, and as university professor who teaches and supervises students.

As director, Prof. Helling represents the institute externally, nationally and internationally. As a researcher and research group lead, the physicist works with her doctoral students and post-docs to decipher the chemical composition of the atmospheres of the more than 5,000 known exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system), aiming to provide insight into the unique nature of each. Complex computer simulations are used as virtual laboratories to explore physical conditions that are inaccessible to laboratories on Earth or even for space missions. Finally, as university professor, she enables students to participate into her fascination and expertise.

Between exoplanets and on-board computers

The Space Research Institute, which Prof. Helling now leads, is one of the largest institutes of the Austrian Academy of Sciences with around 100 employees. The IWF is an extremely active research institute which explores planets within and beyond our solar system, as well as studying the influence of their parent star on their atmospheres. The IWF fosters a close link between research and instrumentation, meaning that the instruments developed at the institute may lead to new scientific discoveries and understanding.

The Institute's current scientific interests range from the exploration of the solar system, the study of plasma processes in the planetary environment as well as in interplanetary space, the exploration of exoplanets and their birthplaces, to the miniaturisation of electronics and the construction of on-board computers, satellite control units, data compression units and magnetometers. The IWF know-how has visited every planet in our solar system (except Uranus and Neptune) to which a space mission has ever travelled. The IWF also operates a Satellite Laser Ranging Station, which is involved in measuring distances to satellites and space debris up to an altitude of 36,000 km, contributing to the prevention of satellite collisions.

"The work and successes of my colleagues allow no doubt that Graz is Austria's space capital," says Helling. For the physicist, her role as director of the globally respected institute and being awarded a professorship in Physics & Astronomy of the University of St Andrews are the greatest successes of her career so far.

Big dreams, realistic steps

Christiane Helling started out in Berlin, where she studied physics at the Freie Universitaet and the University of Technology. A scholarship from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung enabled her to do her doctorate and gave her access to her first interdisciplinary research project. In collaboration with engineers, she researched phase transitions in turbulent media, or put more simply: cloud formation in turbulent atmospheres. The fascination for the physical-chemical processes of cloud formation as well as their dramatic effects on their surroundings have remained. Currently, Prof. Helling is working with her team on a generalised cloud model that can predict cloud formation in the atmospheres of the solar system as well as in those of exoplanets under the influence of the changing radiation field of the central star.

Before the physicist came to Austria, her scientific career took her to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, namely to the Sterrewacht Leiden, the European Space Research and Technology Center (ESTEC/ESA) in Noordwijk and the University of St Andrews in Scotland. With great success: Christiane Helling came to St Andrews as a SUPA Advanced Research Fellow and left as Professor of Physics and Astronomy to take up the position as Director of the IWF in Graz. In addition, she is now also a Professor in Space Science at the Graz University of Technology.

For students who want to follow in her footsteps, she has very clear advice:

The required foundation is a good education. You don't have to be an overachiever, but you need the courage to persevere, the courage to admit mistakes and a passion for science. Good networking is important in all career phases. In any case: Dream big but take realistic steps.

Prof. Dr. Christiane Helling