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The JCMT Celebrates 25 years at the top of the world


Dr Holly Thomas
Joint Astronomy Centre
Desk: +1 808 969 6531

Images, notes, and contact details appear below.

27 April 2012

The JCMT Celebrates 25 years on Top of the World

The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, is celebrating its 25th birthday this week. It first turned its dish to the heavens this week in 1987, and now, a quarter of a century later, the JCMT continues to lead the world in submillimetre astronomy.

With a diameter of 15m, the JCMT is the largest dish in the world dedicated to observing at submillimetre (sub-mm) wavelengths. Submillimetre light comes from the coldest and most distant material in the universe and has a wavelength 1000 times longer than visible light. Sub-mm emission traces everything from cold dust in the Milky Way, just a few degrees above absolute zero, to distant galaxies whose light has been stretched by the expansion of the universe.

The JCMT was one of the first sub-mm telescopes to be built and it has blazed the trail in this field. One of the reasons for this success is the series of increasingly sensitive instruments, built using state-of-the-art technology, which have been responsible for some key discoveries in astronomy. An early instrument called UKT14 revealed young stars at the very earliest stages of their formation, objects known as Class 0 protostars. This discovery was vital for understanding how stars form from clouds of gas and dust. The world's first sub-mm imaging camera, SCUBA, operated on the JCMT for 8 years and enabled the discovery of a previously unknown population of dusty galaxies, that became known as 'SCUBA galaxies', that fundamentally changed our understanding of galaxy evolution in the early universe. SCUBA also produced the first ever images of cold debris discs around nearby stars, which may indicate the presence of planetary systems. All of these diverse discoveries have led to major scientific advances.

The JCMT's journey of astronomical discovery is continuing. Just a few months ago the observatory unveiled SCUBA-2, a revolutionary successor to SCUBA that has already produced exciting scientific results. To celebrate its 25th birthday, the JCMT is releasing the first SCUBA-2 data from W51, a massive star forming region in the Milky Way. The image shows 850 micron emission from SCUBA-2 which traces dust, and reveals a detailed morphology, from dense clumps to wispy filaments. This data is part of the JCMT Galactic Plane Survey that aims to map the large regions of the Milky Way at sub-mm wavelengths.

"The JCMT has been an outstanding success over the past quarter century" says Professor Gary Davis, its Director. "It has provided its user communities in the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands with scientific capabilities that are unrivalled anywhere in the world. With the recent release of SCUBA-2, this success will continue into the future and I look forward to seeing the observatory continue to thrive."

The JCMT is operated by the Joint Astronomy Centre (JAC) on behalf of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, the National Research Council of Canada, and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. The JAC operates two telescopes on Mauna Kea; the second is the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), that celebrated its 30th birthday in 2009.


W51, located in the constellation of Aquila, is one of the most massive regions of star formation within the galaxy. It is in stellar nurseries such as this that the stars form with enough mass to go on to end their lives in Supernova explosions. The background is a mid-infrared Spitzer image while the blue overlay is 850μm data from SCUBA-2.
Credit: Spitzer/GLIMPSE, JAC.

The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope sits at 14,000 ft
atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
Credit: JAC.

A ring of dust particles around a nearby star, Epsilon Eridani. This star is similar to the Sun and the ring is thought to resemble the Kuiper Belt in our own Solar System. The clumpy structure is suggestive of planets, and it is known from other techniques that there is at least one planet orbiting this star. The ring was images with the SCUBA instrument on the JCMT but the star in the centre is an artists impression.
Credit: Greaves et al.

This image of the Hubble Deep Field, taken with the SCUBA instrument, reveals the presence of primoridal, dust-enshrouded galaxies form the when the universe was about one tenth its current age. This discovery spawned the field of submillimetre cosology, which has been one of the primary areas of astrophysics supported by the JCMT.
Credit: D. Hughes et al.

The first detailed image of filamentary structure traced in the Northern part of the Orion A cloud, showing where the stars are forming from clumps of cold gas and dust. The ability to image condensations of cold dust with the SCUBA camera, and more recently with SCUBA-2, has made the JCMT one of the choice instruments in the world for studying the earliest stages of star formation.
Credit: Johnstone et al.

Notes for Editors

Sub-millimetre Light

Sub-millimetre wavelengths are much smaller wavelengths than emitted by a typical radio station, but lo nger wavelengths than light waves or infrared wavelengths.

They are typically measured in microns, also called micrometres. One micron is one millionth of a metre, o ne 10,000th of a centimetre, or one 25,000th of an inch.

Submillimetre astronomy is most sensitive to very cold gas and dust. For example, a source with a temperat ure of 10 K (-263°C) emits most of its energy in a broad spectral region centred around 300 microns. Su ch very cold material is associated with objects in formation, that is, the mysterious earliest evolutiona ry stages of galaxies, stars and planets. If one wants to understand the origins of these most fundamental of astronomical structures, the submillimetre is the waveband of choice.

James Clerk Maxwell Telescope

  • The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) is the world's largest single-dish submillimetre-wave telescope.
  • It collects faint submillimetre-wavelength signals with its 15 metre diameter dish.
  • It is situated near the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii, at an altitude of approximately 4000 metres (14000 feet) above sea level.
  • It is operated by the Joint Astronomy Centre, on behalf of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Canadian National Research Council, and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

Science and Technology Facilities Council

The Science and Technology Facilities Council is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security.

The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

STFC operates or hosts world class experimental facilities including:

  • in the UK; ISIS pulsed neutron source, the Central Laser Facility, and LOFAR. STFC is also the majority shareholder in Diamond Light Source Ltd.
  • overseas; telescopes on La Palma and Hawaii
It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities by funding membership of international bodies including European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institut Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

STFC is one of seven publicly-funded research councils. It is an independent, non- departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

Follow us on Twitter @STFC_Matters

Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research

The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) is the principal Dutch science funding body and its mission is to facilitate excellent scientific research in the Netherlands by means of national competition. Each year NWO spends more than 700 million euros on grants for top research and top researchers, on innovative instruments and equipment, and on institutes where top research is performed. NWO funds the research of more than 5300 talented researchers at universities and institutes. Independent experts select proposals by means of a peer review system. NWO facilitates the transfer of knowledge to society.

About National Research Council Canada

Recognized globally for research and innovation, Canada's NRC is a leader in the development of an innovative, knowledge-based economy for Canada through science and technology.

Media Contacts

Please note that it is best to contact these individuals by email.
  • Holly Thomas
    Joint Astronomy Centre
    Desk: +1 808 969 6531

Science Contacts

Please note that it is best to contact these individuals by email.
  • Prof. Gary Davis
    Joint Astronomy Centre
    Desk: +1 808 969 6504

Contact: JAC outreach. Updated: Mon Jun 18 16:19:49 HST 2012

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