Space telescope astrophysicist probes space, spreads the word

Jason Kalirai has 'the coolest job in the whole world'

  • Astrophysicist Jason Kalirai talks about the Hubble Space Telescope and the Webb Space Telescope during a visit to the Howard Astronomical League. The Ellicott City man works at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
Astrophysicist Jason Kalirai talks about the Hubble Space… (Sarah Pastrana )
April 29, 2013|By Pete Pichaske, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Jason Kalirai doesn't just reach for the stars. He pulls them close and studies them — and encourages others to do so, as well.

For two years, Kalirai, an award-winning astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, worked with the Hubble Space Telescope, the most powerful telescope in history. Now he is the deputy project scientist developing Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be 100 times more powerful.

"Astronomy is my passion, and the James Webb Space Telescope is the most exciting astronomy project ever," said Kalirai, 35, of Ellicott City. "I am very fortunate to be in the field of astronomy, in my prime, at this time.

"It's just amazing. What I'm doing gets more and more fulfilling as time goes on."

Kalirai spends about half his time working on the Webb telescope and half on his own research, which focuses on the formation and evolution of stars in nearby galaxies. When he's not doing astronomy, he's talking about it — to scientists around the world or amateur astronomers and students closer to home.

"The kids always love him," said Monica S. Wilson, a first-grade teacher at Veterans Elementary School in Ellicott City, where Kalirai speaks every fall. "He's got an excellent rapport with children … and a really good ability to explain things at their level."

Appearing recently before the Howard Astronomical League, Kalirai spoke of Hubble's successes and Webb's potential. He talked of nebula and clusters, and of having "the coolest job in the whole world."

"He was just fantastic," club president Christopher Todd said. "It's a challenge to talk about something as a scientist and explain it to people who are not on your level, but he did it. It's a rare skill, and he's got it in spades."

Kalirai grew up in the isolated town of Quesnel, British Columbia. As a boy, he gazed with delight at the stars in Quesnel's relatively dark night sky and decorated his bedroom with posters of stars.

But it was a high school physics class that sealed his interest. "That was when I learned about astrophysics," he recalled. "When I heard you can actually get paid to do that stuff, I was hooked."

After high school, he enrolled in the honors physics and astronomy program at the University of British Columbia, where he earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in astrophysics.

Kalirai did postdoctoral research as a Hubble Fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz, before coming to Maryland to work at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore in 2008 and settling in Ellicott City.

Listening to Kalirai, it's difficult to determine whether he's more enthusiastic about his own research, his work on the Webb telescope or spreading the word about the wonders of astronomy.

He has traveled the world to lecture and to stargaze, with frequent stops at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

His own research won the 2013 Newton Lacy Pierce Prize, given annually by the American Astronomical Society to an astronomer under the age of 36.  He was cited for his work in the field of stellar and galactic astrophysics. 

The Webb telescope, described recently by CNN as "NASA's next big mission in astrophysics," is set for launch in October 2018. The tennis-court-sized telescope is to be launched 1 million miles into space.

Its mission is grand: to find the first galaxies that formed in the early universe, connecting the Big Bang to our own Milky Way, and to see stars forming planetary systems, connecting the Milky Way to the solar system.

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