Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers
March 29th, 2013
04:01 PM ET

Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers

Editor's note: Jason Kalirai is the deputy project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be NASA's next big mission in astrophysics. He works at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Follow Jason’s conversations on Twitter @JasonKalirai.

Astronomy has always been the most important of all sciences to me. Astronomy defines who we are as human beings and our place in the universe. It is through astronomy that we test the laws of nature on the grandest scales and attempt to comprehend, well, everything. Telescopes aid in that study. We took a model of the newest telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, to South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas.

Since the time of Galileo, astronomers have relied on increasingly sophisticated telescopes to study the universe. With each technological advancement, telescopes open a more sensitive eye on the universe. The clearest example of this is also perhaps the most important scientific and engineering instrument ever built: the Hubble Space Telescope. Over two decades, Hubble has rewritten textbooks countless times and fundamentally changed our knowledge of the universe. Hubble continues to do this today and is the overwhelming preferred tool for most professional astronomers to conduct their research.

The James Webb Space Telescope

Just as Hubble and other NASA Great Observatories have answered questions about the universe, they have also revealed new mysteries. The future vision of astrophysics aims to answer these questions and encompasses many scales, from finding the first small galaxies that formed in the early universe to mapping their evolution over cosmic time into the beautiful large galaxies we see nearby. It includes a comprehensive study of stars and planets in our own Milky Way galaxy, both in terms of finding and characterizing younger analogs of our solar system and in exploring other Earth-like worlds for signs of biomarkers.

This bold vision requires a telescope very different from Hubble. The telescope needs to be 100 times more powerful; operate at cryogenic temperatures; orbit 1.5 million kilometers from Earth; shield from the heat of the sun, Earth and moon; and have razor-sharp vision in the infrared part of the spectrum. NASA teamed up with both the European and Canadian space agencies and aerospace giant Northrop Grumman to build our most powerful eye on the universe: the James Webb Space Telescope.

A project like this offers a unique opportunity to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists. Over the past few years, I have spoken with more than 10,000 adults and children at science centers, planetariums, international symposia, classrooms and other public events. As I share the story of the James Webb Space Telescope, I witness eyes light up with excitement.

An interactive STEM experience presented at South by Southwest

The annual South by Southwest festival is one of the largest cultural festivals in the world. SXSW Interactive brings tens of thousands of people to Austin to experience what is unfolding in the world of technology. This year, the Space Telescope Science Institute teamed up with NASA, Northrop Grumman and Microsoft Research to propose an experience that would connect the public to science, technology and engineering through direct interaction.


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