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Jakob van Zyl (1957–2020)

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.

Jakob van Zyl

Celebrating Jakob van Zyl's Life and Legacy

An event to honor Jakob van Zyl's life and legacy is tentatively planned for the spring/summer of 2021, in the hope that by then his family and friends will be able to gather in person.

In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations to support two of Jakob's favorite causes:

  • The Jakob van Zyl Memorial Fund at Caltech to support research and students in the Electrical Engineering Department, where Jakob studied, graduated, and conducted research for most of his career, and in which he taught for more than 20 years. Our goal is to raise $100,000 to establish an endowment in honor of Jakob van Zyl. Charles and Valerie Elachi will match every dollar donated 1:1 up to $50,000. Contributions can be made through the following link: Checks may be mailed to the Jakob van Zyl Memorial Fund c/o Caltech, MC 5-32, Pasadena, CA 91125.
  • The Jakob van Zyl Memorial Fund for Namibia Schools to help the schools in Namibia that Jakob and his spouse Kalfie generously supported. The funds will go to a small network of schools that the couple worked with for many years, and which are located in the area of Namibia where they grew up. Contributions can be made through the following link:

Friends and co-workers are also invited to post tributes.

Any questions about donations or other ways to honor van Zyl's memory should be directed to Laura Grinnell, Senior Director of Development, at [email protected] or 415-519-1304.