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International collaboration to tackle deepest questions in the universe

Last Updated on Sunday, 02 May 2010 11:37
Published on Friday, 25 February 2005 00:00

Five UK institutes will represent British interests when the construction of the biggest telescope in the southern hemisphere is embarked upon next month. By investing in the project they will ensure an input into the specification and development and over 100 nights observation time from a unique location for observing the southern skies. The 85 ton telescope takes advantage of recent technological innovations to achieve high performance at relatively low cost.
The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) is a truly multinational project that will shed light upon some of the oldest questions astronomers have asked about the age and scale of the universe, and will be able to see objects a billion times too faint to be seen by the naked eye.

The British consortium, led by the University of Central Lancashire, includes the Universities of Keele, Nottingham and Southampton and Armagh Observatory and will be joining the other partners in the SALT project, from South Africa, Poland, Germany, USA and New Zealand. Armagh Observatory's participation in the project has been made possible by the provision of funding by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure for Northern Ireland.

Due for completion by the end of 2004, the optical/infrared telescope dubbed "Africa's Giant Eye" will have an eleven metre hexagonal mirror, very similar in design to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) in Texas, but with a redesigned optical system using more of the mirror array. SALT is a fixed-altitude telescope which can access 70% of the sky observable at its base in Sutherland, South Africa. It will be capable of gathering twenty times as much light as any existing telescope in Africa. SALT will be able to record distant stars, galaxies and quasars a billion times too faint to be seen with the unaided eye - as faint as a candle flame at the distance of the Moon!

A Letter of Intent and statements of the UK's involvement will be signed at the University of Central Lancashire on 23 August when an international conference brings Dr David Buckley, the Project Scientist of SALT and international colleagues to Preston for a Conference on the New Era of Wide Field Astronomy. The Letter of Intent will be signed by Dr Malcolm McVicar, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire. Dr McVicar will also be present at the groundbreaking ceremony at Sutherland, South Africa on 1 September, where he will represent the UK as one of the 12 partners to ceremonially dig the first soil beginning construction of the new telescope site.

Professor Gordon Bromage, Head of the Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Central Lancashire said "This is a fantastic new opportunity for the UK's astronomers and research students. We are delighted to be working with our partners around the world, over the next 15 years, first building the telescope and then probing the nature of stars and galaxies with SALT. SALT is also going to provide many opportunities for links and exchanges between students and staff in Britain and in Southern Africa."

Notes for editors

* The total building cost of the Southern African Large Telescope will be around #15 million pounds

* When completed SALT will allow astronomers to explore the origins of the universe, study quasars, active galactic nuclei and galaxy populations and search for planets orbiting other stars.

* SALT and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope represent a new paradigm in design of world class optical telescopes. The SALT project is managed by a team based at the SALT Headquarters at Sutherland and South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town.

* SALT is a fixed altitude telescope and can access 70% of the sky observable from Sutherland during specific windows of opportunity. It can gather almost 20 times as much light as the largest existing African telescope.

* Sutherland, South Africa has been chosen as the site for SALT because it boasts one of the clearest and darkest night skies in the world enabling unique observation of many crucial objects from the southern hemisphere, such as the centre of the Milky Way and the two nearest neighbouring galaxies the Magellanic Clouds.

* At the groundbreaking ceremony, SA President Thabo Mbeki will give a keynote speech.

* The Premier of South Africa's Northern Cape Province will officiate.

* Including the UK consortium, there are currently nine partners in SALT using both public and private funds.

The others are:

The National Research Foundation of SA;

Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences;

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope Board;

Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey;

Georg-August-Universitat, Gottingen, Germany;

theCarnegie Mellon University, USA;

and University of Canterbury,
New Zealand.

* Members of the UK consortium are primarily interested in studying stellar astrophysics, the origin and evolution of galaxies and interstellar space.

* The SALT web site is




Maureen Dearden
Communications Office, University of Central Lancashire, UK
Phone: (+44) (0)1772 892485
Fax: (+44) (0)1772 892934
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