Africa's Giant Eye Officially Opened in South Africa
Also known as Africa’s Giant Eye, SALT (www.salt.ac.za) is a new ground-breaking project which will enable astronomers from six countries, including the UK, to study more closely the lives of stars and the origins of the universe. The gigantic telescope with its 11-metre-wide mirror will also be a truly 21st century facility, with researchers able to submit observing requests and receive data back via the internet.
Speaking at the official opening, South African President Thabo Mbeki said: “SALT means that our country will remain at the forefront of cutting-edge astronomical research. The telescope will enable us to observe the earliest stars and learn about the formation of our galaxy which will help us reveal clues about the future. We are also proud that SALT will not only enable Southern African scientists to undertake important research, but also provide significant opportunities for international collaboration and scientific partnerships with the rest of the world.”
South Africa has a long and proud tradition of excellence in astronomy dating back to 1820 when the first observatory was built in Cape Town, and SALT is the biggest science project undertaken by the new South Africa. The £11 million project is an international partnership backed by six different countries including a UK consortium consisting of the Armagh Observatory, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), Keele, Nottingham and Southampton universities, and the Open University.
Professor Gordon Bromage, Chairman of the UK SALT Consortium and Head of Astrophysics at UCLan, commented: “SALT is a hugely significant project, incorporating innovative designs and magnificent engineering. It will provide astronomers with a window into the realms of planets around other stars and the origins of galaxies, which will surely lead to many exciting discoveries. This is particularly true given telescopes of this size and power are needed in both hemispheres to get an accurate picture of stars and galaxies. For example, one can only see our two nearest galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, from the southern hemisphere.”
Limited scientific observations have already begun, while completion of the telescope’s commissioning continues over the coming months. In the near future installation will begin of the Prime Focus Imaging Spectrograph, which will allow astronomers to dissect and then analyse the dim light of distant stars and galaxies in dozens of different ways, some of them not available on any other large telescope.
Also speaking at today's inauguration ceremony Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive Officer of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council in the UK said: "Participation in SALT represents a great opportunity for UK astronomers to play their role in helping to answer some of the key questions about the origins of our Universe.”
SALT science programmes will include studies of the most distant and faint galaxies to observations of asteroids and comets in our own solar system. The facility has been completed within the five year deadline and has been delivered on budget. Armagh Observatory’s contribution to the project has been financially supported by its baseline funding body, the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Armagh Observatory is represented at the unveilling by its Director, Professor Mark Bailey. The Observatory's representative on the UK SALT Consortium, Professor Gerry Doyle, plans to use SALT to look at a class of objects known as Brown Dwarfs, essentially failed stars.
Notes to Editors
SALT was an initiative of South African astronomers that won support from the South African government, not simply because it was a leap forward in astronomical technology, but because of the host of benefits it could bring to the country. Already the benefits have been tangible. Sixty percent of the contracts and tenders to construct SALT were awarded to South African industry, while total South African funding was only thirty four percent of the project total, meaning a net inflow of foreign exchange. An additional benefit is the provision of bursaries and scholarships to deserving South African students to study both in South Africa and abroad.
SALT is not simply a South African project; it is an international partnership involving 11 different partners from 6 countries on 4 continents. In addition to the UK SALT Consortium the other international partners are:
-National Research Foundation of South Africa
-Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences
-The Hobby-Eberly Telescope Board (USA)
-Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey (USA)
-Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Germany)
-The University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA)
-University of Canterbury (New Zealand)
-University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (USA)
-Dartmouth College (USA)
-Carnegie Mellon University (USA)
All the SALT partners will get time on the telescope – proportional to their shares in the building and operating costs. Partnership astronomers won't travel to Sutherland. Their observing requests from around the globe will come to Sutherland via the Internet, where dedicated SALT operations staff will then make the observations and send the data back electronically.
On 1 September this year, SALT astronomers released the first colour images from SALT to demonstrate its power. They call this occasion “first light”. These images show old and young clusters of stars, regions where glowing gas clouds surround newly formed stars, and a spiral galaxy similar to ours, but located 30 million light years away. (See images at: http://www.salt.ac.za/science/first-light/)
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