Best of the West: Region makes key contributions to the James Webb Space Telescope, infrared drones in Colorado, nation-leading population growth in Idaho, record-breaking birder in Washington

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Dec. 27, 2021. (Photos courtesy of NASA and Pete Caster)

Soon after its successful launch on Christmas Day, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will peer more than 13.5 billion years back into cosmic history by capturing infrared light from the Big Bang and enabling scientists to probe the structures and origins of our universe, as well as our place in it. Its launch was one of the most anticipated days in aerospace history and though its development over the last 25 years was the culmination of dozens of organizations, including the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, much of it was completed in the West.    

Along with NASA laboratories like the Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, which made significant contributions to early mission concepts, technology development, and modeling, several private companies and academic institutions based in the West also played a pivotal role. 

Ball Aerospace in Colorado worked to develop the mirror system for the telescope, which gives it more than six times the light-gathering capability of the Hubble Telescope and makes it 100 times more powerful. Even the beryllium used to create the telescope’s mirrors was mined at the Spor Mountain mining area in Utah. Northrop Grumman in California also developed the sunshield used to protect the instruments onboard as they operate in the extremely cold space temperature of -406⁰ F (30K) necessary for infrared imaging of distant stars and galaxies. The University of Arizona led the design and development of the Near-Infrared Camera for the telescope that was built by Lockheed Martin. SolAero Technologies Corp., a New Mexico-based manufacturer of high-efficiency solar cells, supplied the cells for the solar panels and solar arrays that power the telescope.

Once the Telescope begins transmitting its data and imagery back to earth, which many expect to happen within the next 30 days, several western institutions will also help lead the analysis. Washington State University scientist plans to use it to search distant galaxies for undiscovered black holes and determine if star clusters and small galaxies have black holes at their center, similar to larger galaxies such as the Milky Way. Dr. Anil Seth from The University of Utah will be conducting similar research. Heidi Hammel, the executive vice president of The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), which has centers in Hawaii and Arizona, plans to use the telescope to examine the Kuiper belt, a region beyond Neptune jammed with cold, icy objects that Webb could help bring out of obscurity, like the dwarf planets Haumea, Makemake, Orcus and Sedna.

POPULATION STATION: From 2020-2021 Idaho grew 2.9%, leading the country in population growth for the 5th consecutive year. Last year an additional 53,000 new residents moved to the state, bringing its population up to about 1.9 million. The main reason was domestic migration. Neighboring states Utah and Montana ranked just behind Idaho, having grown about 1.7% each. The growth in each of those states follows a larger trend throughout the region, which gained residents despite losing a significant amount of people from California and New Mexico. 

EYES IN THE SKIES: The Summit County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado has used drones since 2018 to aid in various search and rescue efforts and investigations, but this year, its office added two new drones with infrared capabilities. The new equipment makes a big difference when conducting searches at night, whether it’s a rescue or another type of investigation, and especially when avalanches burry skiers. Learn more about advanced aerial mobility and the future of aviation by reading highlights from a speech by Cyrus Sigari, a co-founder of UP.Partners, at WGA’s 2021 Winter Meeting.  

EASTBOUND AND DOWN: Justin Smith of Wyoming became the first woman to graduate from Lehigh Carbon Community College with a commercial driver’s license and owns her own semi-truck, a means to the financial stability and work-life balance that she’s always strived for. Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon worked with LCCC to create the program as a way to address a workforce shortage in the industry. Learn more about strategies for expanding non-traditional educational opportunities, and the work that Western Governors’ are doing to support it, by reading their recent correspondence with House Committee on Education and Labor. 

AVIARY AFICIONADO: Being able to tune into subtle differences in the appearance and vocalizations of birds, most know Will Books, a 23-year-old birdwatcher in Washington, say he’s more like a ‘bird savant.’ Thanks to his fine identified 376 birds this year, breaking the state record. One of the species he found was the common crane, which is usually only spotted in Africa Asia & Europe. He also saw a winter wren, which but had never been seen in Washington before, as well as a thick-billed murre, a sharp-tailed grouse and a 

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