Southampton astronomers celebrate opening of Africa's ‘Giant Eye’
Professor Bill Wakeham, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton, and Professor Malcolm Coe, Head of the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, are this morning attending the official unveiling ceremony for the southern hemisphere’s largest telescope in South Africa. South African President Thabo Mbeki has officially opened the telescope in Sutherland, a small town 400km north of Cape Town in the last few minutes.
The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) – also known as Africa’s Giant Eye – is a new ground-breaking project which will enable astronomers from six countries, including those at the University of Southampton, 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, meaning they will not have to travel to South Africa to use the telescope.
President 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."
The £11 million project is an international partnership backed by six different countries including a UK consortium consisting of the University of Southampton, the universities of Central Lancashire (UCLan), Keele and Nottingham, the Open University and Armagh Observatory.
Professor Malcolm Coe, Head of Southampton’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said: "This is a very exciting time for the SALT project and the start of a new era in astronomical observation. We have waited five years for this moment. The University has been involved in the project since it started and we will have access to the telescope for the next ten years.
"Already the first images from the SALT camera are of excellent quality and we have great hopes for the future. Access to the telescope will be a major asset to those studying astronomy at Southampton."
Phil Charles, Director of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) which will run SALT, and Professor of Astronomy at Southampton, said: "To have achieved this within five years of the groundbreaking ceremony is a splendid testament to the efforts of the entire SALT Project Team, and I give my hearty congratulations to the Project Manager and Project Scientist, who have set a benchmark for the entire international community. We look forward with great anticipation to the first year of SALT science operations."
The University of Southampton has a contract to train students for SALT and there are currently three at the University. "These students are the next generation of astronomers. They have very fulfilling careers ahead of them, working with the telescope and advancing our knowledge of astronomy," said Professor Coe.
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.
Notes for 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
- - Carneige 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.