Steve Mairs


Senior Scientist at the JCMT

I am a radio astronomer with a decade of experience in reducing and analysing both interferometric and single dish data. I received my PhD in 2017 after earning several awards including a three-year Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada graduate fellowship. After working for two years as a support astronomer, during which I assisted both international and visiting astronomers in obtaining high-quality observational data, my main job now is to manage and optimize the scientific productivity of the telescope by innovating observing strategies and data processing techniques focusing on a variety of fields in submillimetre astronomy, continue to direct my own research program, and to provide general support for the JCMT's operations as well as the performance of the instruments and their development. My most well cited publications focus on data reduction and calibration techniques for two large surveys performed using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and the analysis of protostellar variability at submillimetre wavelengths. My current research is intent on better understanding the earliest stages of star formation by tracking the lightcurves of protoatars and watching them brighten and dim in real time in order to derive the physical characteristics of the forming systems. Passionate about science education and outreach, I have taught thousands of students of all ages and I have organised and hosted several large public events to observe phenomena such as eclipses and planetary transits.

Check out my research

Personal Philosophy

Observational astronomers are different from many other scientists. Largely, what we study is so far away we could never hope to travel there within our lifetime. Unlike other disciplines that can dig into ice cores or perform experiments in controlled labs, we study nature in its purest form, unable to reach out and collect the glory that we witness every day.

Studying space brings us all closer. Floating on this speck of dust we call a planet in the infinite reaches of a vast and complex universe reminds us that we only have each other. Knowledge of the heavens transcends borders, languages, and barriers. We must realise how fragile and beautiful our home is in the grand landscape of our expanding notions of time and space in order to truly find peace and harmony. By reaching for the stars and into the great unknown, we may just find that which is strangely familiar... and yet so unspeakably magnificent.

Current Research

Humantay Glacier

Frequently Ask Questions

Fundamentally, there are really two types of astronomers: Observers and Theorists. Theorists work hard to simulate phenomena in the universe using powerful computers and an understanding of the laws of physics which govern the past, present, and future of astronomical events. I, however, am an observer that uses telescopes to obtain images of the sky in order to better understand how this crazy universe works. The romantic picture of an astronomer gazing through a large telescope and sketching their findings, however, are mostly in the past. These days, professional astronomers use sophisticated imaging technology to obtain data and share it with the whole community (once they've written a publication or two themselves!). Even a series of a few images can keep an astronomer busy for years! That means that most astronomers do the majority of their work during the day and very occasionally travel to a telescope to collect data (more often these days, telescopes don't even require observers to be present at the site!).

I'm a bit of a special case as I work at an observatory itself: the James Clerk Maxwell Teelscope on Maunakea on the Big Island of Hawaii. I was a "support astronomer and now I'm the Senior Scientist. This means that while I obtain data using the telescope, lead research programs, and manage/optimize the scientific productivity of the institution, I also assist visiting astronomers in obtaining high-quality observational data. This means that I provide technical, scientific, and logistical support to astronomers before, during, and after their observing runs which are typically in 5 night intervals. I also assist with their data analysis once they are back at their home institution. In addition, I perform general support of the telescope operations and instruments (cameras) including in the context their development.

Vast and beautiful complexes of interstellar gas are where nascent suns first breathe life. These so-called "molecular clouds" (consisting primarily of molecular hydrogen) act as recycling plants, collecting material ejected from stars that have died and using those elements to create the next generation of stars and planets. These clouds come in a range of sizes and can have strikingly different morphologies. They are complicated systems in which a thorough understanding of fluid dynamics (including turbulence, shock waves, and shears), supernova explosions, magnetic fields, chemistry, and gravitational collapse mechanisms is necessary to describe them fully. There are numerous open questions between the time in which older stars die and newer stars form. While many of these enticing mysteries are low hanging fruit ready to be plucked in this burgeoning field; other conundrums will provide years of work to come.

We're writing an origin story with the laws of physics as our guide.

Believe it or not, this type of research is very pertinent to our lives today here on the Earth. Although we look at systems that are thousands of light years from Earth (and even far-off galaxies!) to get clues, we are really looking at our very own history. Because time lines are so long in space compared to our lives, we are essentially looking at still images of the heavens when we really need a movie... However, movies are made from a series of still images put into a logical order. Time lines in space may be long, but space is also very, VERY big. Therefore, we can see several different images scattered across the sky of different stars at different times during the process of their birth. By taking these pictures and organising them in an order that makes sense we can tell the story of not only how those stars out there are forming, but how our very own sun and Earth came to be. It is truly a great privelege to be able to significantly contribute to the question of our own existence.

The pictures we take are of the densest regions of molecular clouds, namely: cores. We take them using telescopes and detectors which operate at a variety of wavelength ranges, though most commonly we use the infrared, submillimeter, and radio bands. To organise these pictures into a sequence, we apply the laws of physics to each frame in the movie and we create simulations which we can compare with the sky and refine over time until our understanding is sufficiently advanced.

Hawaii is the world's best place to build telescopes. Maunakea is the tallest mountain in the world (not the highest, though), which means that much of the land near the summit is generally above the clouds, so we get clear skies a lot. In addition, it is the atmosphere that makes stars twinkle... but astronomers don't like that because they want the stars to stay still so they can study them. Situated in the middle of the pacific ocean, nice, smooth laminar winds cause less disturbances in the atmosphere and it is easier to correct for the dancing, restless light when it reaches our cameras. Furthermore, there is often less than 2 millimetres of water vapour between our telescopes and space. This is critcal when performing observations of clouds of gas and dust in the Milky Way (where stars are born) because too much water will obscure our data completely (so there is no way we could observe with the JCMT at sea level!). Finally, with our poisition near the equator, we can see vast amounts of both the northern and southern hemisphere which increases the number of targets we can study along with other telescopes all over the world. There really is no place better on Earth.

Yes! Astronomy is one of those wonderful sciences where our research is made public for all to read about and ask questions. Visit the vast arXiv of publications if you want to find out more - or check out my own list of publications by clicking here!


Hilo, HI
660 N. A'ohoku Place

Contact Info

Phone: +1-808-969-6554

Last Updated

May 11th, 2021