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Caltech To Shut Down Observatory in September

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California Institute of Technology plans to end its operations of the Caltech Submilimeter Observatory, which has been in use for nearly 29 years, beginning in September.

The university originally announced in April 2009 that the observatory would begin to be dismantled in 2016, and that by 2018, the site would be back to its natural state.

A plan for dismantling the telescope is currently in the works and will be decided on in coordination with the Office of Mauna Kea Management and the University of Hawai’i at Hilo. Caltech officials say the close contact with the two organizations is to ensure that the removal is conducted quickly and with respect to both culture and the environment.

“Caltech is sincerely grateful to the people of Hawai’i Island for the use of Maunakea for nearly three decades, enabling superb research from this excellent astronomical site for the betterment of humanity. Caltech commits to the dismantling of the telescope and site restoration according to the Decommissioning Plan approved by the Board of Land and Natural Resources,” the school said in a statement.


In 1987, the CSO began its operation under the management of Caltech in agreement with the University of Hawai’i.

“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,” says Sunil Golwala, current director of the CSO and a professor of physics at Caltech. “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.”

CSO is equipped with a 10.4-meter radio telescope that was designed and assembled in the 1980’s by the late Robert Leighton, Caltech’s Valentine Professor of Physics, and his team. Over the years, Caltech faculty, student,s and staff, in addition to staff scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a variety of institutions world-wide, have contributed to new instrumentation for the CSO. Today, the CSO has been referred to as a cutting-edge facility for astronomical research and instrumentation development.


“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 Phillips, now the CSO’s director emeritus. “We thank the National Science Foundation, which funded the CSO continuously from construction in 1984 to the end of 2012.”

Over 100 students from Caltech and other institutions completed their PhD research using the CSO. For nearly three decades, groundbreaking achievements in submillimeter and millimeter astronomy, such as the study of light emitted by atoms, molecules, and dust grains in the intersteller space where stars and planets form, have been conducted.

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