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Maunakea Telescope Set to Begin Removal Next Summer May Find New Home in Chile

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The Caltech Submillimeter Observatory is set to be the first Maunakea telescope to be decommissioned the removed from the mountain. Work could begin as soon as the summer of 2022.

The first telescope to be decommissioned on Maunakea is set to begin removal and site restoration as soon as next summer. But that may not be the end for the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, whose owners are looking to secure a new home for the telescope.

Maunakea’s Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, or CSO, is the first-ever telescope to be removed from the summit since the 1960s.

Jim Hayes, President of Planning Solutions, a consultant on the project, says decommissioning plans aim for a full restoration of the site.

“This is the first time this is going to be done at this scale on Maunakea, and it's going to be a learning process,” says Hayes, “But we don't anticipate any obstacles that will prevent us from achieving that goal.”

An environmental assessment of the planned removal found no significant environmental or cultural impact to the site.

CSO came online in 1987 and has been used by researchers including more than 200 students before ceasing operations in 2015. Caltech Physics Professor and CSO Director Sunil Golwala says the telescope revealed objects that would otherwise not be seen.

“We were able to study molecules in our own galaxy, the molecules that eventually form dust and form into planets and even could be the seeds of life. So it was one of the big contributions,” says Golwala, “And then another big contribution was opening up this waveband for looking at objects that were bright only at these wavelengths, rather than at the wavelengths that we normally see with our eyes revealing new populations of galaxies, collections of galaxies that were not possible to be seen without this telescope.”

CSO is the first of five Maunakea telescopes set to be decommissioned in exchange for the planned construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

While the CSO’s enclosure will be torn down as soon as next summer, Golwala says the telescope may find a new home in Chile.

“The Chilean site is actually better than Maunakea and will offer the telescope kind of an opportunity to do new things that it was not able to do on Maunakea,” says Golwala, “We’re already planning a new enclosure. And so the challenge is really is to find the funds to complete that project.”

Public comments on the environmental assessment for CSO’s decommissioning will be accepted until Nov. 4 — extended from the previous deadline of Oct. 8. Community meetings were also planned.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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