Interview with Helmut Jenkner
Since its launch in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has allowed for observations of the most detailed images ever taken of objects at the greatest distance possible. This has led to breakthroughs in the field of astrophysics. Austrian Helmut Jenkner, deputy head of the Hubble Mission Office at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, has been intensively involved in the development and operations of the Hubble Space Telescope. He spoke with Austrian Information about his early interests and the highlights of his career in astrophysics in Austria and the U.S.
How did your interest in astronomy begin? And what prompted a career in space research?
During secondary school, it was clear to me that I leaned more toward science, mathematics or something in that area. Very early on my mother and I took walks outside Vienna, and these walks passed by a public observatory, called the Kuffner Sternwarte. I was naturally curious and asked my mother what it was, and she explained that it was an observatory where one can look at the stars. I replied that I wanted to look at the stars. That was when I was six or seven years old, and the answer was, of course, that when I was a little bit older I could. I believe I was 15, when I was given my first tour at the observatory. From then on, I returned again and again.
When I started at the University of Vienna, I majored in mathematics and minored in astronomy, thinking that there was not much chance for a career in astronomy, but I was wrong. After four years, I was offered a half-time teaching position at the Institute for Astronomy at the University, and so I switched my major and wrote my thesis in astronomy instead of mathematics. This was how I entered the field. After my PhD I was offered a postdoctoral fellowship at the Ohio State University. I accepted the position and spent a marvellous year there in 1979. When I returned to Vienna, I thought that if anything interesting opened up in the U.S. I would seriously consider it. A few years later I had two offers, one from the Ohio State University and one from the European Space Agency to work on the Hubble project at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Given the choice between a somewhat standard academic job and a job that would allow me to work on the Hubble Space Telescope, I chose the latter. That was in late 1982. Starting in 1983, I began working at the Space Telescope Science Institute and have been there ever since.
You mentioned the development of the Hubble Space Telescope as one of the most interesting projects you were strongly involved with. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?
The Hubble Space Telescope is a 2.4 meter telescope that orbits Earth in a relatively low orbit, which, however, is the highest a space shuttle can reach. The reason why we want to put telescopes in space is two-fold: first of all we can have access to the entire electromagnetic spectrum and can observe ultraviolet or infrared light that is normally absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere. The other reason for wanting to be above the atmosphere is that the atmosphere has a blurring effect on all the objects observed. In space we are only limited by the resolution of a telescope, making the pictures so much sharper and detailed. Since its launch in 1990, Hubble has not only provided revolutionary new insights to scientists, but also captured the imagination of the public.
Having studied at the University of Vienna, have there been any joint ventures or cooperative programs between Austrian and American universities regarding projects in space research?
First of all, Austria is a member of the European Space Agency and, therefore, has access to all the European Space Agency (ESA) projects. Hubble is a joint project of NASA and ESA, whereby Europe enjoys a 15% partnership in the project. Therefore, Austrians have access to the Hubble Space Telescope and can propose to use it. Austria is, undoubtedly, involved in numerous space science projects. For instance, one of my former colleagues in Vienna is involved in a joint Canadian-French-Austrian satellite project dealing with very small satellites. Personally, I am still in contact with my previous colleagues in Vienna, and we have collaborated on a couple of projects, mainly concerning data from the Hubble Space Telescope. Can you tell us briefly about some of the differences between Austria and the U.S. in terms of promoting science research and opportunities for young researchers? Generally speaking, I can only refer to the time when I left Vienna. One of the reasons I went to the United States and joined this project was that in the one year I spent as a post-doctoral fellow, I saw a lot more effort made toward promoting young people. I experienced more enthusiasm here than at the University of Vienna, which was more governed by several centuries of tradition. Also, I had the impression that at the time there were lot more funds and resources available in the U.S. for big projects such as this one. In contrast, the astronomy departments of the universities of Vienna, Innsbruck and Graz tried and are still trying to make Austria a member of the European Southern Observatory. Yet in spite of such efforts spanning the last 30 years, they have not succeeded. There are several reasons, one of which is undoubtedly budgetary. Therefore, my impression was that particularly 25 years ago and maybe to some degree now the funding was not at the level of other European countries, although I understand from my reading and talking to my colleagues that it is getting better.
In a globalized world, it appears that national endeavours in space research have given way to ever more international cooperation, such as that of the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. Is this noticeable in regards to the scientific projects in the field of space research?
I think both types of projects are necessary and beneficial. On the one side projects at the scale of Hubble or other large scientific projects that cost several billion Euros are by nature possible only in cooperation with big entities like NASA and ESA and others such as the Japanese or Canadian Space Agencies. But on the other hand certain projects can be done very efficiently and intelligently on a national scale. The advantage is that these projects can be a natural training ground for young scientists and engineers to gain experience. The short answer to the question whether everything is going global and big is that I don’t think that will be the case. I think both scales are necessary: the big projects on the global scale as well as the small projects in national or small cooperative efforts of institutes of a few countries.
Having been in the United States for twenty-five years, do you still have strong ties to Austria?
I do, as my parents lived in Vienna. In addition, I still I have a number of very good friends in Austria and I stay in constant contact with them. Furthermore, there are several colleagues at the Institute for Astronomy in Vienna with whom I am in close contact and work with occasionally.
Dr. Helmut Jenkner studied mathematics and astronomy at the University of Vienna, where he received a doctoral degree in astronomy and mathematics in 1974. In recognition of his achieving the highest grades on the exams, he was honored by a special graduation ceremony—promotio sub auspiciis presidentis rei publicae—wherein the president of Austria personally handed him his degree. Except for a year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Ohio State University in Columbus, he spent seven years as assistant professor at the Institute for Astronomy in Vienna. As a staff member of the European Space Agency he was assigned in 1983 to the Space Telescope Science Institute, initially as chief systems analyst of the guide-star selection system. His task was to develop the software system that would select a pair of guide stars for every pointing of Hubble and generate an all-sky catalogue of about 20 million objects—about 100 times larger than any other catalogue of its kind at the time. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center also recognized this work through a Group Achievement Award in 1993. Over the years, Dr. Helmut Jenkner has held several management positions at the Institute in areas related to instruments, calibration, science support, and operations. Since 2002, he has served as deputy head of the Hubble Mission Office, which is responsible for maximizing the scientific return from Hubble through Institute activities directly related to the conduct of the Hubble program. Most recently, Dr. Jenkner led the initial phases of the ambitious Hubble Legacy Archive project, which developed a state-of-the-art archive and retrieval system that should enable entirely new types of scientific research based on Hubble data. He is also the author of about 80 scientific and technical articles.