SA’s astronomy programme takes off

Southern Africa is fast developing an international reputation for excellence in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics, says science and technology director-general Rob Adam.

Briefing the media at Parliament on Tuesday, he said these were areas where his department had been making a special push in terms of creating ”real cutting-edge” space science.

Referring to the official opening in Namibia next month of the largest gamma-ray telescope in the world, he said this would complement the Southern African Large Telescope (Salt), currently being built at Sutherland in the Western Cape.

Phase one in the construction of the Namibian instrument — known as the High-Energy Stereoscopic System telescope (Hess) — will be officially opened in the Khomas Highland, 100km southwest of Windhoek on September 2 and 3.

According to one of the prime movers behind the project, Professor Christo Raubenheimer of the University of Potchefstroom’s space physics unit, Hess will allow researchers to explore the ”extremes of physics”.

”We are building the biggest gamma-ray telescope in the world,” he said on Tuesday.

The telescope would be used to study many powerful objects and violent events that took place in both our own and surrounding galaxies, including those associated with neutron stars, stellar black holes and cosmic rays.

”We are going to the extremes of physics — the highest possible energies, the highest possible magnetic fields.

”So we are talking about… radio pulsars and cataclysmic variables.

”For instance, imagine the planet Jupiter and our sun within 10 kilometres of each other — there are such objects in the universe. We are looking at these types of things, where the laws of nature are really pushed to the limit.”

Exploring such limits often revealed new and unanticipated phenomenon, Raubenheimer said.

Adam told journalists at the briefing that South Africa was ”very much part” of the HESS project.

”We have the sense that Southern Africa has the potential to become a region of excellence in astronomy, astro-physics and space science.

”So we’ve worked with the Namibians, and the French and German governments in particular, along with a range of international consortium partners, to develop a gamma-ray telescope south-west of Windhoek.”

Hess and South Africa’s Salt telescopes would operate in tandem.

”Salt operates in the optical, infra-red region of the spectrum; the high-energy stereoscopic system, or Hess telescope, operates in the very-high cosmic ray or gamma area.”

Information gathered by the Hess telescope would be transmitted to observatories around the world, Adam said.

Raubenheimer said astronomy in Southern Africa had only recently recovered from the effects of decades of apartheid.

”In the beginning of the apartheid years, Europe wanted to build big telescopes in the southern hemisphere, and they determined Namibia to be the best site.

”However, the politics were wrong, and the Europeans took their projects to Chile.”

Now, with Hess, ”we are opening a whole new window in astronomy, and it’s happening in Africa, in Namibia”, he said.

South Africa’s own Salt telescope, once completed in 2004, will be the biggest of its kind on the continent.

Dubbed Africa’s Giant Eye, it is powerful enough to detect a light source the size of a candle flame as far away as the moon, or resolve the shape of an object the size of a two rand coin at a distance of ten kilometres.

Another recently-built cutting-edge telescope operating from the South African Astronomical Observatory at Sutherland is the InfraRed Survey Facility (IRSF).

This allows observers to peer into the depths of our own and neighbouring galaxies, and capture infrared images of how stars are formed.

Speaking at Tuesday’s briefing, Science and Technology Minister Dr Ben Ngubane paid tribute to the first South African in space.

Business man Mark Shuttleworth’s trip to the International Space Station had ”inspired young and old alike with an interest in astronomy and rocket science”, Ngubane said. – Sapa

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Richard Davies
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