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Ellicott City astrophysicist works on Hubble's succesor

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

Kalirai, 35, is an award-winning astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. For two years, he worked with the Hubble Space Telescope, the most powerful telescope in history, and for the past 2 1/2 years has been the deputy project scientist developing Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be 100 times more powerful than Hubble.

Kalirai, who lives in Ellicott City with his wife, Mandeep, and twin four-year-old daughters, Mira and Suriya, spends about half his time working on the Webb telescope and half doing his own research, which focuses on the formation and evolution of stars in nearby galaxies.

For a kid who grew up fascinated by the stars in the clear night sky of his small hometown in Canada, Kalirai is living the dream.

"Astronomy is my passion, and the James Webb Space Telescope is the most exciting astronomy project ever," Kalirai said. "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's exuberance is infectious. When he's not doing astronomy he's talking about it — to scientists around the world or to students and amateur astronomers closer to home.

"The kids always love him," said Monica S. Wilson, 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.

"He's very enthusiastic — not at all dry. He gets them very excited about astronomy and science. I'm always hopeful that some of the children will retain that excitement." 

Last week, Kalirai gave an hour-long lecture to the Howard Astronomical League at the Robinson Nature Center, in Columbia. He talked of Hubble's successes and Webb's potential. He talked of having "the coolest job in the whole world," of nebula and clusters, and afterwards, members gave him two thumbs up.

"I thought it was one of the best speakers we've had," said longtime member Bob Prokop, of Elliott City. "He really knew his audience."

"He was just fantastic," agreed club President Christopher Todd. "I learned a bunch of things. … 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."

Boyhood dream

Kalirai hardly stumbled into astronomy. He grew up in the isolated town of Quesnel,  British Columbia, with a population of about 10,000, the son of immigrants from India. 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 the deal.

"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 Honours Physics and Astronomy program at the University of British Columbia, then stayed on to earn both his master's and, in 2004, his doctorate in astrophysics.

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

His wife is a middle school science teacher in Baltimore County.

His career has taken him around the world to lecture and to star gaze, with frequent stops at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, one of his favorite spots 

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.

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

The Webb telescope, meanwhile, described recently by CNN as "NASA's next big mission in astrophysics," is big science on a breathtaking scale.

First talked about in the 1990s, the project for a while was beset by glitches and technical problems. But it's back on track and set to be launched in October 2018. Its price tag is $8 billion, making it one of the most expensive science programs in the world.

The telescope will be the size of a tennis court and will be launched 1 million miles into space (Hubble is 350 miles from earth). Its mission, as outlined on the project's website, is simple but grand: "Webb will find the first galaxies that formed in the early Universe, connecting the Big Bang to our own Milky Way. Webb will peer through dusty clouds to see stars forming planetary systems, connecting the Milky Way to our own Solar System."

Or, as Kalirai told the Howard Astronomical League last week, Webb will "solve the mysteries of star formation" and probe "the building blocks of life."

He added: "Seeing this launch will be one of the happiest days of my life."

Passion for public outreach

As for spreading the word about astronomy, Kalirai has made it his personal mission.

He has partnerships with a dozen area schools, including Veteran's Elementary and Centennial High, and speaks regularly to groups like the Howard Astronomical Society, tailoring his talks to the group's age and knowledge.

"He's a great scientist, very dedicated, and we're lucky to have him," said Massimo Stiavelli, acting mission head for the Webb Telescope.

"But he also really cares about getting out and educating the public about science. … He's very enthusiastic. He's about as distant from the old picture of the scientist sitting in an ivory tower as you could get."

Kalirai said such public outreach is "our responsibility as scientists.  The United States currently is not one of the world's leaders in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).  For the future of our field, I want the brightest minds to go into science. And the way to do that is to show kids that scientists are just regular people."

As an astronomer, Kalirai said, he has an easier task than some scientists.

"Of all the sciences, it's the most accessible," he said. "Everybody's looked up at the night sky and wondered, 'What's out there?' "

Kalirai's already has at least a couple of young converts.

His two daughters have grown up with space posters on their walls and, under his tutelage, already can identify nebula (clouds of dust and gas space) and star clusters. But their interest in space got a boost recently when they studied a bit of astronomy in pre-school. 

"That took them over the top," Kalirai said. "They are astronomy fans now."

Readers can keep up with Kalirai's work by following him on twitter at @JasonKalirai.

More information and updates on the James Webb Space Telescope are available at jwst.nasa.gov or webbtelescope.org.

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