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Caltech Submillimeter Observatory on Maunakea to End Operations

Caltech Submillimeter Observatory

Photo courtesy CSO.

After almost 29 years, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) will end operations of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO) in Hawai‘i in September. Caltech will begin the planning for the dismantling of the observatory in close coordination with the Office of Maunakea Management to ensure that it is undertaken promptly and in a culturally and environmentally respectful manner. The site will be restored to its natural state by 2018 according to the Decommissioning Plan approved by the Board of Land and Natural Resources.

Built and operated by Caltech with funding from the National Science Foundation, the 10.4-meter radio telescope began operation near the summit of Maunakea in early 1987. For nearly three decades, astronomers from around the world have used the observatory to pursue research and to accomplish groundbreaking achievements in submillimeter and millimeter astronomy—the study of light emitted by atoms, molecules, and dust grains in the interstellar space where stars and planets form. Well over 100 students, from Caltech and other institutions, have used the CSO for their PhD research.

“The CSO has played a central role in the development of the science and instrumentation of submillimeter and millimeter astronomy over the last three decades,” said Sunil Golwala, current CSO director. “The CSO legacy of combining training in instrumentation development, hands-on observing, and science will live on via its former students and researchers as well as in new projects for which it has laid the foundation.”

“This has been a most exciting time in which the field of submillimeter astronomy has been developed, leading to an understanding of astrochemistry, star formation, and distant, dust-obscured galaxies,” says Tom Phillips, CSO’s founding director, who is now director emeritus.

CSO’s scientific achievements include determining the volatile composition of comets, including the first ground-based detection of HDO (heavy water) in a comet, leading to an improved understanding of the origin of comets and of terrestrial water.

Hōkū Ke‘a, the UH Hilo Educational Telescope on Maunakea, will also be decommissioned. The decommissioning process will begin in early 2016 and is expected to be completed in 2018, after the CSO’s decommissioning. Once the areas are restored to their natural state, no new observatory will be built on either site.