Jakob van Zyl (1957–2020)


Jakob van Zyl

Dr. Jakob J. van Zyl served NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for 33 distinguished years, culminating in his leadership of the Solar System Exploration Directorate through the successful operations of celebrated missions such as Juno, Dawn, Cassini, and the implementation of InSight and MARCO, along with the ongoing development of Europa Clipper, Psyche, and many JPL instruments and the Mars Helicopter for Mars 2020.

Van Zyl's research interests included electromagnetic theory, wave propagation, diffraction and scattering, remote sensing techniques, radar polarimetry and interferometry, and antenna and sensor theory and techniques.

He first achieved world renown for his research in imaging radar polarimetry. Subsequently, van Zyl managed the implementation and operations of Earth Science missions and instruments under JPL’s responsibility, then served as the Director for Astronomy, Physics and Space Technology and later as the Associate Director for Project Formulation and Strategy. In that role, he helped to formulate a new vision for the Laboratory of the future. He was also the project manager of GeoSAR, a three-year effort to develop a dual frequency interferometric synthetic aperture radar system that could penetrate vegetation to precisely map the Earth's surface topography.

In March 2021, JPL designated the Perseverance rover’s observation point to record Ingenuity helicopter tests as the Van Zyl Overlook.

Born in Outjo, Namibia on February 24, 1957, van Zyl received his first degree in electrical engineering from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa in 1979. He followed that with a master of science degree in electrical engineering in 1983 and a PhD in electrical engineering in 1986, both from the California Institute of Technology. He taught at Caltech, as a senior faculty associate in electrical engineering and aerospace, over the last two decades. He contributed in numerous ways to promote interactions between the Caltech's Division of Engineering and Applied Science and JPL.

He holds two patents and 17 NASA certificates of recognition. JPL and NASA are richer for his many technical and managerial contributions, and for his unwavering dedication, mentorship of young researchers, and engaging personality.

He is survived by his wife, Kalfie, and two siblings.