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11/22/2004 08:00:00

New Home for Astronomers

PASADENA, Calif. - 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. Now the Institute is about to help its world-renowned astronomers and other investigators continue their groundbreaking discoveries well into the 21st century.

Thanks to a lead gift from Charles H. Cahill and Aniko Dér Cahill, plus support from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation and other Institute friends, Caltech will soon begin construction of an estimated 100,000-square-foot facility that will provide a much needed collective and collaborative home for its astronomers, instrument builders, and theorists who now work in numerous buildings on campus.

With an imposing view of the southern facade of Caltech with the San Gabriel Mountains beyond, the new $50 million Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics 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, CA, have been chosen to design what promises to be a visually impressive structure and a facility that will be extremely functional.

The recipient of 52 awards from the American Institute of Architects, Mayne has designed both consumer products and buildings, including the striking new Caltrans District 7 headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. Mayne will design a structure for Caltech that will complement the aesthetics of the campus and the surrounding neighborhood while meeting the practical needs of scientists.

Plans call for the Cahill Center to be composed of five floors, two of them underground. The building will contain space for offices, laboratories, remote observing rooms, conference rooms, a library, an auditorium, and classrooms. The design is expected to be completed by the spring.

"An institution conducting cutting-edge research in astronomy and astrophysics should have a facility that advances those investigations," said Caltech president David Baltimore. "Thom Mayne and Morphosis is an exciting choice that will provide the campus and Pasadena with a highly visible icon. By bringing investigators together from across campus, the center will engender the kinds of collaborations that are Caltech's hallmark, and which lead to breakthrough discoveries."

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 found the largest object orbiting the sun since the discovery of Pluto in 1930, and the most distant galaxy in the Universe.

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 Tom Tombrello, chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy. "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 1930's, to the twin 10-meter Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea. A recently proposed Thirty Meter Telescope 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."