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Caltech seeks feedback on removal of observatory atop Maunakea, site restoration

The California Institute of Technology is preparing to take removal of its submillimeter telescope atop Maunakea through the regulatory process.

The Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, which closed in 2015, will be the first to be dismantled under the Office of Maunakea Management’s decommissioning subplan. No new telescopes will be built on the site.

The institute announced Monday it is starting a “public scoping period” to receive feedback on removal of the 10.4-meter telescope and site restoration. An environmental assessment and a conservation district use permit will be drafted.

Caltech said in a press release that it will consider different scenarios, and feedback on cultural, environmental and financial impacts will be incorporated into the plan.

“We are grateful for the use of Maunakea for nearly three decades for astronomical research,” said Sunil Golwala, CSO director and Caltech physics professor, in a written statement. “We are undertaking the decommissioning process respectfully and look forward to working with OMKM, University of Hawaii at Hilo, and the community.”

Opened in 1987, CSO observed light emitted between the infrared and radio wavelengths. That is suited for observing molecular gases and small solid dust particles that fill dense regions where stars form, according to Caltech.

Caltech first announced its intent to remove the telescope in 2009. At the time, it said the observatory was a cutting-edge facility for astronomical research and instrument development.

Contributions to science included detection of “heavy water” on comets and observation of “dusty planets,” which optical telescopes are unable to see, Caltech said during the 2009 announcement.

It said then that the observatory was being closed because of the construction of the next-generation radio telescopes, such as the Cornell Caltech Atacama Telescope in Chile.

Final decommissioning plans will be approved by Caltech, the Maunakea Management Board, University of Hawaii and state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Initially, Caltech anticipated the site would be returned to its natural state by 2018.

Planning, permitting and design is anticipated to take about two years, according to Ashley Kierkiewicz, senior account executive with Hastings & Pleadwell, which is handling communications for Caltech.

That includes about one year to complete the environmental process and six months to one year to complete the conservation district use application. Decommissioning can begin once a CDUP is issued, she said.

Caltech also hired M3 Engineering and Ho‘okuleana LLC to help it with the decommissioning process.

Comments can be submitted to Peter Young of Hookuleana LLC at by Jan. 15.

Public meetings are planned as part of the EA process, Kierkiewicz said.

Caltech also is a partner with the W.M. Keck Observatory and Thirty Meter Telescope.

Email Tom Callis at


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