Seriously starry-eyed

Astrophysicist Jason Kalirai is living his high school dream

Dr. Jason Kalirai is part of the team on the James Webb Space Telescope.

Staring up at the night sky as a child, Jason Kalirai was fascinated.  He pondered questions like how big is the Universe and how many stars and galaxies are out there? He credits his father with instilling a curiosity which has carried this Quesnelite all the way to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, where he’s currently working on NASA’s next generation James Webb Space Telescope which will replace the Hubble when launched in 2018.

Dr. Kalirai has realized his dream of becoming an astrophysicist and every day he devotes his intelligence, training, education and experience to the biggest question of all, where do we all come from?

He began to fine-tune his focus in Grade 11 and 12. Already an outstanding math student, Jason discovered a love of physics through his Correlieu physics teacher Ray Blais.

“Physics presents problems you may never have seen before, but it also provides the foundation to solve those problems, very analytical, I like that,” he said.

However, when Jason discovered Blais held a degree in astronomy, he zeroed in on picking his teacher’s brain as to how he could pursue that profession.

“I remember Jason as a very bright student with a million questions,” Blais said.

“I think that now, the master teacher/student relationship has reversed. The student has become a master of the subject.”

Ray Blais is retiring from teaching this year. He summed how he feels about his students.

“I believe all my students have great potential and Jason has certainly demonstrated his potential in what he has achieved. Today I can say I’m proud of what he has done with his life and wish him great success in the future.”

After graduating from Correlieu in 1996, Jason headed off to the University of British Columbia with stars in his head.

He enrolled in a combined Honours Physics and Astronomy program and by his fourth year as an undergraduate, Jason began doing research. He was chosen to work with one of his professors (also coincidentally a professor who taught Ray Blais) Dr. Harvey Richer, a stellar astronomer who introduced the young scientist to white dwarfs.

“These stars have incredible properties, they are the cinders of stellar evolution,” Jason said.  He continued to work with Dr. Richer at UBC and completed both a Masters of Science (MSc) degree in 2001 and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in 2004.  He chose to stay at UBC despite having offers from many U.S. universities and a national fellowship to study anywhere in Canada.

Jason explained that a star is born from a cloud of gas and dust in space. Those clouds are bound by gravity and if the mass of that cloud is large enough, it collapses in on itself.  The pressure and the temperature at the centre can increase to the point that hydrogen atoms fuse together to form helium. A star is born!

Over millions, and even billions of years, stars burn brightly but eventually exhaust their hydrogen fuel.  What’s left is a shrivelled core – a white dwarf.

Jason has devoted research time since those early undergraduate years to learning more about white dwarfs and was recently credited by the journal “Nature” with devising a way to date these, the oldest, stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

His research represents a critical element of understanding how our Milky Way galaxy built itself up over billions of years from smaller galaxies.

“White dwarfs are remarkable, their density is about a million times more dense than matter on earth, a tablespoon of white dwarf matter

would weigh as much as a school bus on Earth,” he said.

These properties leave a unique signature in their spectra that Jason has been measuring.

His research with white dwarfs, and other topics in stellar and galactic astrophysics continues.

But, his work on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has this astrophysicist absolutely fascinated.

In the planning since 1996, this remarkable piece of equipment will go where no telescope has gone before – to the origins of the universe.

Once launched, the James Webb Space Telescope will be parked approximately 1.5 million km from Earth,  past the Moon, deep into the coldest of environments.

This is to ensure that the telescope can make the most sensitive observations of the faint glow from distant astronomical objects in the cosmos.

“This future space telescope is one of NASA’s top priorities,” Jason said of his employer.

At a cost of $8 billion, JWST is a NASA-led project, but represents an international collaboration of about 17 countries with significant contributions from the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency.

“I spend a lot of time thinking and working on this project,” Jason added.

“This telescope is a game changer for astronomers across the world.”

He went on to say the 21-foot gold-coated beryllium reflector mirror is finished and the other supporting instrumentation is currently being finished.  The completed telescope will be the size of a tennis court.

“We’re going into the phase of integrating all the elements,” he said.

“One of the things Hubble has given us is an appreciation of the size of the universe, JWST will reach back to the early formation of the universe and characterize these early galaxies.  These are the seeds of the wonderful spiral and elliptical galaxies we see littered across the night sky now.  It will also measure light from the first stars that turned on shortly after the Big Bang.

With JWST, astronomers will use infrared observations to identify new planets going around other stars in the Milky Way galaxy.”

JWST will also be able to sort out planetary atmospheres around distant stars and determine if water is present.

“Just like every human being has a unique fingerprint, every planet has a unique atmosphere and one of the key properties that we want to measure is water vapour, which may be a sign of liquid oceans.  This telescope will bring us one step closer to knowing if life exists on other planets.”

Once launched, the Space Telescope Science Institute on the John Hopkins University campus, where Jason is located, will be the headquarters of this amazing telescope.

Jason is proud to be part of the team and says the launch day will be one of the happiest moments of his life so far.

As with the Hubble Space Telescope, use of the JWST will be restricted to the top scientific questions.

“Only one in 10 astronomers who applies to use Hubble actually succeeds, so to use this new telescope will depend on the strength of the proposal, and I hope to be one of those scientists,” he said.

“I will do everything I can for the next five years to make sure this project stays on track and is everything expected of it.

“The thing that I am most excited about is understanding how stars evolve, change and die.”

Jason is more than just an incredibly dedicated astrophysicist, he is also a husband and father to twin three-year-old girls, Mira and Suriya Kalirai.

And after a long day at the university, he admitted he enjoys an occasional episode of the Big Bang Theory.

As an astrophysicist, Jason’s curiosity is just as intense as the little boy who stared at the stars from his back yard on Ritchie Avenue in Quesnel.

“My field is curiosity-based. Our role is to understand our place in the universe and its very rewarding.”

To contact Jason e-mail jkalirai@stsci.edu, visit the website: www.stsci.edu/~jkalirai or twitter: @jasonkalirai.

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