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Jakob van Zyl, JPL engineer involved in numerous space exploration missions, dies

Jakob van Zyl speaking at JPL in 2016
Jakob van Zyl speaking at JPL in 2016.
(NASA/JPL-Caltech
)

Jakob van Zyl, an engineer who held crucial positions at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and was involved in numerous space exploration missions over decades, has died at a hospital in Pasadena at age 63.

Van Zyl, who retired in 2019 after a 33-year career, suffered a heart attack Aug. 24 and died Wednesday, said Veronica McGregor, a spokeswoman for JPL.

His roles at JPL included serving as director for astronomy and physics, director for solar system exploration and associate director on a project to formulate a vision for JPL’s future.

“JPL and NASA are richer for his many technical and managerial contributions, and for his unwavering dedication and engaging personality,” JPL Director Michael Watkins said in a statement.

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Van Zyl was involved in missions that sent the Juno spacecraft to Jupiter, Dawn to the asteroid belt, Cassini to Saturn, and the InSight Mars lander and its accompanying CubeSat spacecraft. He was also involved in the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission currently en route to the red planet, as well as development of future missions.

His early work in Earth sciences led to roles designing and developing missions using synthetic aperture radar.

A native of Namibia, Van Zyl received a degree in electronics engineering from Stellenbosch University in South Africa and earned his master’s and doctorate in electrical engineering from Caltech, which manages JPL.

JPL said Van Zyl was passionate about encouraging young people in Namibia and South Africa to pursue science. With his wife, Kalfie, he returned again and again to his homeland to conduct science programs.

“His legacy will inspire many generations to come,” Lisa Johnson, U.S. ambassador to Namibia, said in a video tribute posted to the embassy Facebook page.

In a message to Van Zyl’s wife, Namibian President Hage Geingob heralded the engineer’s contributions, according to the Namibian, the largest daily newspaper in Namibia.

“The passing of Dr Japie van Zyl has robbed our nation of an outstanding scientist whose contributions in space research advanced our understanding of the universe,” Geingob wrote.

Van Zyl is survived by his wife and two siblings.

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A Times staff writer contributed to this report.


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