$12 Million Yale-Caltech Effort To Probe ‘Grandest Questions in Modern Astrophysics’

In an unprecedented investment in astronomy at Yale, the university has entered into a new partnership with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) that will give it access to one of the world’ premier observatories. Yale will invest $12 million towards future operations of the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii in exchange for 150 nights of observing time over the next 10 years.

“This investment will give our astronomers, postdocs and students long-term access to two of the largest and best telescopes in the world,” said Steven Girvin, deputy provost for science and technology at Yale.

The observatory’s twin 10-meter telescopes—operated by Caltech, the University of California and NASA—ushered in a new era of astronomy when they were built in 1993 and 1996. They remain the largest optical telescopes in the world.

“This program will lead to interesting new ventures combining Yale’s strengths with Caltech’s observatories,” said Shri Kulkarni, director of the Caltech Optical Observatories. “We are looking forward to this exciting new collaboration between Caltech and Yale faculty.”

Until now, for the bulk of their observational data, Yale astronomers have used the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope in Arizona, which is owned and operated by the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, Yale University, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO), and SMARTS, a collection of smaller telescopes in Chile.

“Having access to the Keck telescopes will enable us to study some of the grandest
questions in modern astrophysics,” said Jeffrey Kenney, chair of Yale’s astronomy department. At the top of the researchers’ list will be measuring the masses of the faintest and most dark matter-dominated galaxies, exploring how galaxies evolve in nearby galaxy clusters, and studying some of the most distant and most massive galaxies in the universe.

“This is a win-win collaboration, exploiting the strengths of both programs,” said Tom Soifer, Caltech deputy division chair for physics, mathematics & astronomy.

During their lifetimes, the Keck telescopes have continually expanded our understanding of the universe, from star formation and planets around other stars, to the acceleration of the universe and the black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. The telescopes sit 14,000 feet above sea level on the summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea mountaintop—largely considered one of the best observing sites in the world.

Meg Urry, founding director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, said she is excited about the discoveries that will be made using the telescopes and their sophisticated array of scientific instruments. “If a measurement is possible at all, it will be possible with Keck.”

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Suzanne Taylor Muzzin: suzanne.taylormuzzin@yale.edu, 203-432-8555