NASA has honoured Stellenbosch University alumnus and former solar system exploration director Japie van Zyl by naming the location of its upcoming Ingenuity Mars Helicopter’s flight after him.
Van Zyl was born in Outjo, South West Africa (Namibia) in 1957. After finishing matric he attended Stellenbosch University where he completed an honours degree in electronic engineering.
Following two years in the South African Navy, he left South Africa to complete MSc and PhD degrees in electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
Van Zyl joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1986 where he served in numerous senior roles over his 33-year career.
These roles included director for the Astronomy and Physics Directorate, associate director for project formulation and strategy, and director for the Solar System Exploration Directorate.
As solar system exploration leader he oversaw numerous successful NASA missions, including Juno, Dawn, Cassini, and the implementation of the Mars InSight lander.
During his career Van Zyl won numerous awards, including Global Young Engineer of the Year (1997) and the Distinguished Achievement Award (2010) from the International Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.
In 2015 he received an honorary doctorate in Engineering from the Stellenbosch University for his work at NASA.
He also served as an extraordinary professor at the Stellenbosch University between 2006 and 2020.
Prof Christo Viljoen, former Dean of Engineering and Vice-Rector at Stellenbosch, described Van Zyl as “one of the greatest of our graduates, not only in engineering, but among all alumni”.
Van Zyl passed away unexpectedly in August 2020 after suffering a heart attack. He was 63.
Ingenuity is currently attached to the belly of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which touched down on Mars on 18 February 2021.
On 21 March, the rover shed the guitar case-shaped graphite composite debris shield that protected Ingenuity during landing.
The rover is now in transit to the “Van Zyl Overlook airfield” where Ingenuity will attempt to fly.
Before Ingenuity takes its first flight it must be squarely in the middle of its airfield – a 10-by-10-meter patch of Martian real estate chosen for its flatness and lack of obstructions.
Once the helicopter and rover teams confirm that Perseverance is situated correctly, the process to deploy the helicopter on the surface of Mars begins.
Once deployed, the 1.8kg Ingenuity rotorcraft will have 30 Martian days, or sols, (31 Earth days) to conduct its test flight campaign.
NASA is targeting no earlier than 8 April for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter to make its first flight attempt.
This will be the first attempt at powered, controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet.
Flying in a controlled manner on Mars is more difficult than flying on Earth because the red planet has significant gravity – one-third that of Earth – but its atmosphere is just 1% as dense as ours.