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20-Year Quest Makes Astronomer No. 1 in Finding Doomsday Asteroids : Space: Eleanor (Glo) Helin has spent decades showing why it is important to seek out what was once called 'the vermin of astronomy.' The thrill of the hunt is what spurs her on.

February 07, 1993|LEE SIEGEL | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Helin lives with her husband, Ron, in Thousand Oaks. She prefers not to reveal her age but is believed to be about 60.

Although gregarious by nature, she can be tough if need be.

"When she wants to turn on the charm, she is an absolute charmer," but when she feels mistreated, "she can turn off the friendliness really fast," said U.S. Geological Survey geologist Eugene Shoemaker, once Helin's mentor and now a rival asteroid hunter.

"She's not an easy person," said Helin's husband, a retired engineer. "She's tough. She has to be."

"She lives and breathes near-Earth asteroids, but gives you the image of an ordinary woman you would meet shopping," said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, which helps finance Helin's research.

Eleanor Francis Helin, an only child, was born Eleanor Kay Francis in Pasadena. At the age of 5, she was stricken by polio, leaving her bedridden for months.

"It made me more determined," she said.

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Helin attended school in Altadena and Pasadena, then went to Occidental College in Los Angeles, where she studied geology and married Ron Helin.

She later studied and worked at Caltech, where she and Murray established the lunar research lab in 1960 to help prepare for NASA moon missions. Her study of lunar craters and meteorites that hit Earth got her interested in asteroids, the source of many meteorites.

In the late 1960s, she began studying near-Earth asteroids while working for Shoemaker at Caltech. She discovered her first near-Earth asteroid July 4, 1973.

In 1980, geologist Luis Alvarez and colleagues at UC Berkeley found rock deposits that suggested an asteroid or comet wiped out dinosaurs and other creatures.

The same year, Murray brought Helin to JPL. A rivalry between Helin and Shoemaker developed, partly because of disagreements over who got credit for asteroid research.

In 1982, Shoemaker and his wife started a competing search. Helin and the Shoemakers now share the 18-inch telescope at Palomar, each using it one week a month. The Shoemakers have discovered a record 27 comets. The world's only other systematic search for near-Earth asteroids is run by Tom Gehrels at Arizona's Spacewatch Telescope.

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For a decade, Helin has roamed the globe organizing asteroid searches in France, Australia, Bulgaria, Russia, Britain, Italy and Japan.

"With perseverance and instinct and ingenuity, she has managed to get observing time on observatories all over the world," Murray said.

Most of Helin's annual budget of about $200,000 comes from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. But she forged a network of donors that includes the World Space Foundation, the Planetary Society and affluent individuals.

"She's selling herself all the time," Shoemaker said. "She spends a lot of time thinking about how to sell what she's doing and, by God, she's sold it."

Helin has become "very good at public relations," Marsden said, and it's paid off.

Her biggest public relations campaign involves naming asteroids.

Under International Astronomical Union tradition, near-Earth asteroids are named after mythological gods. But astronomers who discover main-belt asteroids can name them for real people. A colleague named one Glo to honor Helin.

Helin named asteroids for friends and financial supporters. They include Marvin Goldberger, then a president of Caltech; Thomas Paine, once NASA's administrator; Rob Staehle, head of the World Space Foundation; Friedman of the Planetary Society; Lew Allen, a former JPL director, and the son of ex-JPL director Murray.

"Glo has used her naming of asteroids for political purposes from Day 1," Shoemaker said. "She's gone out of the way to convey these favors on people of authority and prestige, including people who fund the (asteroid) program. It works. And I was a party to it as well."

Helin said naming asteroids for donors is a century-old tradition. "You recognize friends and people who have helped you," just like colleges name buildings to honor contributors, she said.

Helin takes particular pride in the name she gave an asteroid she discovered Sept. 10, 1978.

Its temporary designation was 1978 RA. By coincidence, Ra was the name of the Egyptian sun god. That gave Helin an idea. President Carter had just helped forge the Camp David peace accord between Israel and Egypt. So Helin named the asteroid Ra-Shalom, after the sun god and the Hebrew word for peace.

Plaques showing asteroid Ra-Shalom and commemorating the peace accord were presented to the leaders of Israel and Egypt.

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