The Canada-France-Hawaii Observatory began operating in 1979 atop the Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. Canada’s participation meant valuable access to a world-class telescope for Canadian astronomers. At the time of its inauguration, the 3.6-metre telescope was the sixth largest in the world and operated in the range of visible light and infrared.

France launched the project in 1970 with the purchase of a 14-tonne glass disk. The state of Hawaii joined the project in 1971, followed by Canada in 1973. The three partners signed an agreement in 1974 and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Corporation was born.

Canada was in charge of polishing the mirror, putting into place a control system for the telescope, and constructing the observatory building. France was responsible for constructing specific mechanical parts for the telescope (tube, frame, etc.), and Hawaii provided the site, a road to the site, The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.and several instruments. The telescope’s mobile component weighed 250 tonnes and the total structure weighed 325 tonnes.

In 1977, the headquarters and a library were set up at Waimea near the observatory. Canad Read More
The Canada-France-Hawaii Observatory began operating in 1979 atop the Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. Canada’s participation meant valuable access to a world-class telescope for Canadian astronomers. At the time of its inauguration, the 3.6-metre telescope was the sixth largest in the world and operated in the range of visible light and infrared.

France launched the project in 1970 with the purchase of a 14-tonne glass disk. The state of Hawaii joined the project in 1971, followed by Canada in 1973. The three partners signed an agreement in 1974 and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Corporation was born.

Canada was in charge of polishing the mirror, putting into place a control system for the telescope, and constructing the observatory building. France was responsible for constructing specific mechanical parts for the telescope (tube, frame, etc.), and Hawaii provided the site, a road to the site, The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.and several instruments. The telescope’s mobile component weighed 250 tonnes and the total structure weighed 325 tonnes.

In 1977, the headquarters and a library were set up at Waimea near the observatory. Canada was granted access to 42.5% of the available observation time, France 42.5%, and the United States 15%.

Despite the fact that its 3.6-metre telescope was not the largest, the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope was nonetheless the most powerful in the world from 1979 – its first year of operation – until 1994 when the Hubble Space Telescope became fully operational. During that time, the exceptional site, the superior quality of the telescope’s mirror, and the constant improvements to its instruments contributed to the observatory’s ability to generate the highest resolution images ever produced.

The Canada-France-Hawaii ObservatoryIn 1996, an adaptive optics system was installed on the telescope that would once again rival the Hubble Space Telescope in the production of the highest resolution astronomical images. Adaptive optics is a technique that corrects image distortions due to air turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere. A well-known effect of such turbulence is the twinkling of stars.

These new improvements quickly bore fruit for the Canada-France-Hawaii Observatory as it was involved in discovering – or confirming the discovery of – many new moons, gravitational lenses, and so on. For example, astronomers Brett J. Gladman and John J. Kavelaars discovered three new satellites around the planet Uranus in 1999 (Prospero, Setebos, and Stephano) and eight around Saturn in 2000 (Siarnaq, Tarvos, Ijrak, Thrymr, Skathi, Mundilfari, Erriapo and Suttungr). The discoveries of other moons The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.around Uranus and Neptune were announced in 2001 and 2002, but have not yet been confirmed.

In 2003, a new imaging system known as MegaPrime was installed. MegaPrime uses the French-designed MegaCam camera that is able to take 340-million pixel images (about 18,400 x 18,400 pixels), making it the most powerful camera of its type in the world.

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.These days, the observatory is involved in the study of the solar system, the birth and evolution of stars, the interstellar medium, the structure and content of galaxies, galaxy clusters, and large-scale structures of the Universe. The Canadian participation in the observatory is managed by the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics.

© 2006 An original idea and a realization of the ASTROLab of Mont-Mégantic National Park

Colour photo of the Canada-France-Hawaii Observatory from the air

The Canada-France-Hawaii Observatory.

Richard Wainscoat

© Institute for Astronomy/University of Hawaii


Colour time lapse photo of the Canada-France-Hawaii Observatory

The Canada-France-Hawaii Observatory.

Jean-Charles Cuillandre

© Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope


Colour photo of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

Jean-Charles Cuillandre

© Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope


Colour photo of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope from inside the dome

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

National Research Council of Canada/Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope

© National Research Council of Canada/Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope


Colour panoramic photo of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in winter

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

Jean-Charles Cuillandre

© Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope


The James-Clerk-Maxwell Observatory was inaugurated in 1987 near the summit of Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. It was the result of an initiative by the United Kingdom’s Science Research Council to construct a radio telescope capable of studying celestial objects that emit very little light. Such objects are invisible to conventional optical telescopes.

The observatory is named after James Clerk Maxwell, a Scottish physicist who was famous for his groundbreaking work in electricity and magnetism. The construction of the observatory from 1983 to 1987 was completed by the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

At the time of the observatory’s construction, the National Research Council of Canada was planning to resurface its 46-metre radio telescope at the Algonquin Radio Astronomy Observatory. The goal of the resurfacing program was to increase the resolution of the telescope so that it could observe wavelengths as small as three millimetres.

Upon learning of the capabilities of the new British-Dutch radio telescope, the Council decided instead to close the Algonquin Observatory in 1987and to purchase a 25% share in the James-Clerk-Maxwell Tel Read More
The James-Clerk-Maxwell Observatory was inaugurated in 1987 near the summit of Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. It was the result of an initiative by the United Kingdom’s Science Research Council to construct a radio telescope capable of studying celestial objects that emit very little light. Such objects are invisible to conventional optical telescopes.

The observatory is named after James Clerk Maxwell, a Scottish physicist who was famous for his groundbreaking work in electricity and magnetism. The construction of the observatory from 1983 to 1987 was completed by the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

At the time of the observatory’s construction, the National Research Council of Canada was planning to resurface its 46-metre radio telescope at the Algonquin Radio Astronomy Observatory. The goal of the resurfacing program was to increase the resolution of the telescope so that it could observe wavelengths as small as three millimetres.

Upon learning of the capabilities of the new British-Dutch radio telescope, the Council decided instead to close the Algonquin Observatory in 1987and to purchase a 25% share in the James-Clerk-Maxwell Telescope. The JCMT would suit the needs of Canadian astronomers because it was to operate at wavelengths in the submillimetre to lower microwave range (between 0.3 to 2 millimetres).

The James-Clerk-Maxwell radio telescope consists of an aluminum parabolic antenna measuring 15 metres in diameter. It is supported by a heavy structure designed to minimize distortions in the dish, and the entire assembly weighs 70 tonnes. Canada currently has access to 22.5% of observation time, the United Kingdom 49.5%, the Netherlands 18%, and the international community 10%.

The James-Clerck-Maxwell Telescope A piece of Gore-TexTM (the largest in the world) is permanently attached to the building’s opening, which protects the telescope from wind and dust but still allows it to “see” the sky. Gore-Tex allows 97% of submillimetre waves to pass through and does not interfere with the operation of the radio telescope.

The number one enemy of a radio telescope is water vapour in the Earth’s atmosphere because it easily absorbs submillimetre waves. To minimize this effect, the observatory is located at an elevation of 4,092 metres: 97% of atmospheric water vapour exists below this elevation and thus below the observatory.

The main use of radio telescopes is to study our solar system (the Sun, planets and comets), interstellar matter, distant galaxies, quasars, and cosmic background radiation.

The government organization responsible for Canadian participation in the radio telescope is the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics.

© 2006 An original idea and a realization of the ASTROLab of Mont-Mégantic National Park

Colour photo of the James-Clerk-Maxwell Observatory

The James-Clerk-Maxwell Observatory.

Joint Astronomy Centre

© Joint Astronomy Centre


Colour photo of the James-Clerk-Maxwell Telescope covered by its Gore-Tex sleeve

The James-Clerck-Maxwell Telescope covered by its Gore-Tex sleeve.

National Research Council of Canada

© National Research Council of Canada


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • identify recent contributions, including Canada’s, to the development of space exploration technologies;
  • describe in detail the function of Canadian technologies involved in exploration of space;
  • draw a solar system with all its components;
  • establish the link between atoms and light using different instruments.

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