for tomorrow



JET propulsion physicist at NASA Dr Japie van Zyl will discuss whether we are alone and if not where one might look for signs of life in our solar system and beyond.

He is one of the speakers to the 60th annual conference of the South African Institute of Physics in Port Elizabeth hosted by NMMU and Rhodes University.

He will also entertain the public in a popular talk entitled “Exploring the Universe: The search for signs of life” on 2 July at 19:00 at the Boardwalk. He will also host public talks in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein later next month. 

Dr Van Zyl is heading the US$2 billion mission to Mars where space buggy “Curiosity” landed in August 2012. Today it is still exploring for signs of life (microbes) such as water and possible energy sources on the planet.

For centuries humans have looked up at the night sky and wondered if there is another world like our planet out there. The sixteenth century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno speculated that there could be multiple worlds like our own out there, Dr Van Zyl says. 

But it was not until the first discovery in 1992 of two exoplanets orbiting a Pulsar that we had definitive evidence of planets outside of our own solar system. In 1995, the first exoplanets orbiting a main sequence star, 51 Pegasi, were announced providing further evidence of planets orbiting stars outside of our own solar system. 

“Finding planets outside of our own solar system, especially those orbiting within the so-called habitable zone of their parent star raises the intriguing possibility that life may have evolved elsewhere,” says Dr Van Zyl.

He says recent developments in the study of our own solar system raises important questions about our model of where life may have the chance to evolve, with tantalizing evidence of liquid water and organic molecules present on some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Dr Van Zyl is the Associate Director at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory responsible for Project Formulation and Strategy. He has more than 20 years of research experience in various aspects of satellite remote sensing. He received his Hons BEng degree cum laude in electronics engineering from the University of Stellenbosch in 1979, and his MS and PhD degrees in electrical engineering from the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, in 1983 and 1986, respectively.

Dr Van Zyl has co-authored two textbooks on the physics and techniques of remote sensing, contributed to another thirteen books on remote sensing, and published more than a hundred papers in peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings. He has delivered a number of keynote addresses at major international conferences.

Dr Van Zyl is a Senior Faculty Associate at the California Institute of Technology, where he teaches the course “Introduction to the Physics and Techniques of Remote Sensing.” He is also an Extraordinary Professor at the University of Stellenbosch.

Dr Japie van Zyl

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057