02/02/2007 08:00:00

New Astrophysics Building Under Way

PASADENA, Calif.- In December 2008 astronomers and astrophysicists at the California Institute of Technology will have a new home for their offices, classes, and meetings. Construction on the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics began Jan. 31 with a groundbreaking ceremony.

Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau thanked the benefactors and the city for making the building possible. As a civil engineer, he said it was always exciting to be part of the birth of a new building, particularly one whose creation had been envisioned by Caltech faculty and administrators for so many years.

Donning hardhats for the actual groundbreaking were Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard; Chameau; building architect Thom Mayne; Dick Baptie of the general contractor Hathaway Dinwiddie; Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy Division Chair Tom Tombrello; Caltech faculty planning chair Tom Phillips; and building benefactor Charles H. Cahill.

Thanks to Cahill, and other leadership support from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation; Michael M. Scott (BS '65); Caltech trustee Fred Hameetman (BS '62) and his wife Joyce, the Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation, more than $38 million has already been raised. The estimated 100,000-square-foot facility will provide a much-needed collective and collaborative home for astronomers, instrument builders, and theorists who now work in numerous buildings on campus.

The $50 million center will be located on the south side of California Boulevard, between the Institute's athletic facilities on the south and the rest of the campus on the north.

Internationally recognized architect Thom Mayne and his firm, Morphosis, based in Santa Monica, designed the visually impressive, yet functional structure.

Plans call for the Cahill Center to be composed of three floors and a basement. The building will contain space for offices, laboratories, remote observing rooms, conference rooms, a library, an auditorium, and classrooms.

For almost 100 years, Caltech has been at the forefront of astronomy and astrophysics, pioneering research that has led to greater understanding of the earth, the solar system, and the Universe. This facility will help its world-renowned astronomers and other investigators continue their groundbreaking discoveries well into the 21st century.

Since the time of George Ellery Hale, Caltech astronomers have been housed in the elegant Robinson building, opened in 1932 and distinguished by its rooftop astronomical dome.

Generations of occupants have discovered remarkable phenomena, including the cosmological nature of quasars, the incredibly bright beacons in the sky indicating the presence of very distant galaxies, millisecond pulsars, and brown dwarfs, also known as "failed stars." This year alone, Caltech astronomers announced that they have the first look at the weblike large-scale distribution of dark matter in the universe and they discovered the first known triplet of quasars.

Over the years, the Institute's astronomy program has increased in size, overfilling the Robinson building, so that other astrophysical programs began to occupy neighboring physics laboratories.

Despite their many successes, Caltech astronomers and astrophysicists have been limited by the physical separation between research groups.

"Pulling together the division's many activities in astronomy and astrophysics to achieve optimal synergy has been our goal for some time," says Tombrello. "The Cahill Center is an essential step in this progression and, naturally, a top priority for us. We greatly appreciate the gift by the Cahills and other Caltech friends that will help us tackle some of the remaining questions in astronomy."

Caltech's observing facilities, which span almost the entire electromagnetic spectrum, are unmatched by any other institution in the world.

Its optical observatories stretch from the Palomar Observatory, which includes the famous 200-inch telescope built in the 1930s, to the twin 10-meter Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea. The Thirty Meter Telescope, which will be the largest in the world, is now being designed. To this impressive list of world-leading optical telescopes is added the nation's largest millimeter wave radio interferometer, and submillimeter wave single dish. The list goes on, including balloon-borne and land-based cosmic background detection facilities, an ultraviolet sky survey satellite, European Space Agency satellites and NASA satellites, and an airborne telescope.

"The Cahill Center will enable the inventors of all these devices to be brought together under one roof, no doubt fostering exciting new discoveries," says Tombrello. "Caltech is known worldwide for its leadership in astronomy. It's the unique quality of Caltech's education that promotes these discoveries, which will help improve our understanding of the Universe."

According to Chameau, "If not for the extraordinary generosity of several supporters, our faculty would still be waiting for this wonderful the project to begin. Now that the building phase is underway, we still need almost $13 million to reach our goal and several attractive naming opportunities remain."

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Jill Perry (626) 395-3226 jperry@caltech.edu

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Written by Jill Perry