BRUNSWICK, Maine — Since he was in middle school, Grant Tremblay, who grew up in Brunswick, has been “into space.”
While at Brunswick Junior High School, Tremblay had a chance to take part in NASA’s “Moonlink” space exploration program. That experience “really set everything off,” he said of his ascent into studying the heavens.
The budding astrophysicist then went on to take advanced science classes at Brunswick High School and in undergraduate and graduate college programs, all of which propelled him into a career that keeps his eyes on the sky.
He’s back in Maine for the holidays, then will return to a career that causes him to spend much of his time overseas.
Tremblay, 29, spends about 30 percent of his time working on one of the largest telescopes in the world, searching the night sky at the European Southern Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert.
With three or four other astrophysicists, Tremblay sits before highly sophisticated computer terminals and operates the aptly named “Very Large Telescope” part of the year.
Watching the high-tech instruments attached to the Very Large Telescope, Tremblay sees “a different thing every night.”
“I could be looking at everything from distant galaxies to star-forming regions in our galaxy to planets to supernovas, or dead stars,” he said. “I observe the whole range.”
In Chile, he said, “we’re in the middle of nowhere — the highest and driest desert in the world.” The remote location reduces the levels of ambient light, which provides optimum viewing of the night sky.
They live in style, in the Residencia, a famous building that was featured in the James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace.”
Tremblay’s explanation of what he does for work sounds like dialogue from a science-fiction film. But the incredible sights he’s witnessed — including “this really amazing merging galaxy system with an incredible star-forming chain, and the associated star formation” — are real and add to humankind’s knowledge of the universe.
He even discovered an “arc of heated gas in the wake of a blank cavity … basically a waterfall of hot gas that’s larger than about 500 of our own galaxies.”
When he’s not focused on the Very Large Telescope in Chile, Tremblay works near Munich, Germany, conducting his own research related to star formation that takes place amid energy feedback from supermassive black holes, which are some of the most powerful phenomena in the universe. Most of his research is based on data from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and a new telescope in Chile known as ALMA.
Tremblay graduated from the University of Rochester, and while earning a PhD in astrophysics from Johns Hopkins University and the Rochester Institute of Technology, he worked on the Hubble Space Telescope.
Tremblay will spend another year in Europe, and isn’t quite sure where he’ll end up next. He’s home, enjoying the holidays with his parents this week, and finding that people are quite interested in his work.
“I think everyone is born with a natural interest in what’s beyond,” he said.