Until July 31, Haines residents can use their computers and cellphones to control NASA telescopes and take their own photographs of deep space in a national astrophotography competition called the MicroObservatory Challenge.

Into the darkest part of the night sky, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists point multi-billion-dollar-telescopes to capture images of galaxies, nebulae, and solar systems across the universe.

The same NASA grant to the Haines Borough Public Library that previously allowed residents to study moon rocks and handle space gear is now providing the tools to take custom photographs of the Whirlpool Galaxy, some 31 million light years from earth. Using special computer programs, library visitors can take photographs remotely using a network of robotic telescopes across the U.S. NASA scientists will select and recognize outstanding photos.

Haines is one of a number of libraries across the U.S. that was selected to receive funding for the program.

Library systems engineer and former aerospace engineer ,Erik Stevens, who is leading the MicroObservatory Challenge in Haines, explained why deep space photography is cool, and why residents should, he said, “prepare to have your mind(s) blown.”

“Space is far away, right? We can’t reach out and touch it. We can’t go to these places to study deep space objects. The only thing we can do is take photos,” explained Stevens. These photos can help answer questions like: Where do we come from? How was earth formed? Is the sun going to continue to be stable, or is it going to blow up? Is it going to turn into a supernova?

At a MicroObservatory tutorial at the library on Wednesday, preschool-age children posed some important questions. “Will the earth get swallowed up by the sun?” asked one child. “Will the sun explode?” asked another.

Stevens said that while the sun will expand and render the earth uninhabitable one day, it wouldn’t be for another four billion years, so no one in the audience would have to stress. It is because of deep space photos that scientists also know that earth’s solar system is relatively calm and habitable.

Deep space photographs are images of a distant past, created by intercepting light that travels across the universe from objects up to billions of light years away. A light year, the distance that light travels in one year, is a quantity used to measure the vast distances in space.

“Light propagates pretty much forever. It’s not infinite but pretty close,” said Stevens. On Wednesday, he showed an image known as the “Hubble eXtreme Deep Field,” which shows celestial events that occurred 13 billion years ago, close to the time of the Big Bang. The photo was compiled from images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope over 10 years.

It is not possible to see what is happening in real time that far away, Stevens said, because, as Einstein showed, light travels at a constant speed, “and it’s not very fast compared to how fast the universe changes.”

A telescope sensitive enough to see that far costs more than $4.5 billion. In 2013, NASA’s Kepler space telescope, which cost a relatively inexpensive $550 million, revealed that there are about 40 billion earth-like planets that could support life in the Milky Way galaxy alone.

When Stevens did contract work for NASA at the company Ball Aerospace Technologies, he saw the beginnings of what is the most expensive and sophisticated telescope on the planet: the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2021 from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, South America. Stevens called it a “game changer.”

The James Webb telescope is supposed to be the most light-sensitive telescope in the world, with infrared light receptors that will allow it to absorb light from as long as 13.8 billion years into the past, the time of the Big Bang. “When this thing starts,” said Stevens, “prepare to have your mind blown. God, I hope it doesn’t blow up on launch.”