SA's giant telescope to be unveiled by Mbeki

The inauguration of the southern hemisphere’s largest telescope on Thursday near a small South African town would be a milestone towards realising the country’s aim as a “first-rate science” country, astronomers said this week.

The Salt (Southern African Large Telescope), to be unveiled by President Thabo Mbeki near the arid Karoo town of Sutherland, will give astronomers a first-rate glimpse of distant stars, galaxies and quasars.

Some of these were a billion times too faint to be seen with the unaided eye—and are as faint as a candle flame on the moon’s surface, astronomers have said.

“Government regards Salt as a flagship project for human quest for technology. It’s about showing that first rate science can happen here,” said Dave Laney of the Southern Africa Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

“It allows people to see something happening here as opposed to science always being seen as happening in the United States, Europe or Japan,” said Laney.

Salt will “allow us to do things we could only dream of,” said Laney.

With a mirror diameter of 11m, Salt has a maximum resolution of 0,25 arcseconds—which theoretically would enable an observer to spot a small coin at a distance of 10km.

Salt cost $20-million and took five years to complete.

Funded by a consortium of international partners from South Africa, the United States, Germany, Poland, Britain and New Zealand, Salt will gather more than 25 times as much light as any existing African telescope.

Weighing in at a mammoth 82 tonnes, Salt is situated in a perfect geographical area in the remote town of Sutherland, one of the coldest and most arid places in South Africa about 350km northeast of Cape Town.

“It’s an area devoid of light pollution… it is in such a dry area that it does not get enough rain and as a result scientists are not hampered by cloud cover when they need to do their work,” said Salt spokesperson Mitzi Du Plessis.

She also described the instrument as a “pinnacle of science, astronomy and technology in the world”.

It would be beneficial for South Africa not only to look at the stars, but also reversing the country’s “brain-drain” by offering the latest technology available to young students to gain their confidence, she said.

“Salt is reversing the brain-drain because it’s offering cutting edge science,” said Du Plessis.

“It’s the first major science event of the new South Africa,” added Phil Charles, the SAAO’s director.

“With a major telescope like that, you are not looking at a five year project, you are looking at being here for decades,” he added.

It is estimated that it would cost around $10-million over the next 10 years to run Salt. - AFP

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