Caltech Observatory Dismantled So Others Can Rise

Article written: 10 May , 2009
Updated: 26 Apr , 2016

Caltech has announced it will begin decommissioning the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO) in Hawaii starting in 2016.

Caltech says the 23-year-old telescope is being replaced by the next generation of radio telescope, the Cornell Caltech Atacama Telescope (CCAT), to be located in Chile.

“The timing of this works very nicely,” says Tom Phillips, director of the CSO and Altair Professor of Physics in Caltech’s Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy. “The international community of astronomers that rely on CSO will have a seamless transition as CCAT comes online just as CSO is decommissioned.”

Located near the summit of Mauna Kea, the CSO began operation in 1986.

The CSO’s 10-meter radio telescope was designed and assembled by a team led by Caltech’s Robert Leighton and is considered one of the easiest telescopes to use for astronomical observations.

Work at the CSO has led to the detection of heavy water on comets, which has helped determine the composition of comets. It has also led to the observation of “dusty” planets–which optical telescopes are often unable to see–allowing astronomers a better picture of a planet’s composition.

“The CSO has a distinguished history of scientific achievement in Hawaii,” says Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau. “The work done there has led to important advances in astrophysics and made future observatories, such as the CCAT, possible.”

Phillips said it costs about $3 million a year to operate the CSO — an amount that will be better spent on the new telescope. Besides, he said, “Caltech is a world leading research facility and it is not supportive of any activity not satisfying that criterion. The CSO does that today, but it won’t by 2016.”

Caltech operates the CSO under a contract from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Its partners include the University of Texas and University of Hawaii. The observatory has been a host for many scientists worldwide. As part of its mission, observatory time is shared among University of Hawaii researchers, Caltech, the University of Texas, and international partners.

Eleven staff members currently work at the Hilo, Hawaii offices of the observatory while about eight staff members work at Caltech’s Pasadena campus.

When CCAT comes online in the next decade, it will be used to address some of the fundamental questions regarding the cosmos, including the origin of galaxies and early evolution of the universe; the formation of stars; and the history of planetary systems.

CCAT is a joint project of Cornell University, Caltech and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of Colorado, a Canadian consortium including the University of British Columbia and Waterloo University, a German consortium including the University of Cologne and the University of Bonn, and the United Kingdom through its Astronomy Technology Centre at Edinburgh. More than twice the size of the CSO, the 25-meter CCAT telescope will be located in the high Andes region of northern Chile.

Source: Caltech. The observatory website is here.

2 Responses

  1. Astrofiend says

    Can’t stop the relentless march of progress in our chosen subject!

  2. Jorge says

    Indeed. Still, I bet there would be a number of institutions eager to put their hands on such a facility. I bet there would even be someone who’d gladly rebuild the thing somewhere else, provided they got the equipment relatively cheap.

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