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University astronomer swaps Southampton for night skies over South Africa

Published: 
2 August 2004

Phil Charles, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Southampton, is about to take up a prestigious new post as Director of 'Africa's Giant Eye', otherwise known as the South African Large Telescope (SALT) project in Cape Town.

Phil has been appointed Director of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), which was set up by the British in the early 1800's, and as such he will be responsible for the day-to-day operation of SALT. He begins a five-year secondment to the SAAO on 1 October of this year.

The telescope, which is due to be completed by the end of this year, is the largest single telescope in the southern hemisphere, with a hexagonal mirror surface 11 metres across and almost 78 metres square. It is capable of gathering 20 times as much light as any existing telescope in Africa and is powerful enough to see objects one billion times too faint to be seen by the naked eye - as faint as a candle flame on the moon.

In terms of climate, South Africa, along with Chile, is the best location for a telescope of this type. SALT is situated on a desert hill in a remote dark place on the Karoo Plateau in the Northern Cape Province, 6,000 feet above sea level and 250 miles from Cape Town. It is one of the last perfect sites for astronomy, far from city lights and pollution, and on a moonless night the sky is really dark, making it ideal for observing the night sky.

The project is exciting scientifically, maintains Phil Charles, because it is more than just another big telescope. He explains: "The simple engineering of the telescope and its fixed elevation means that it can only track objects when they are within its line of vision across the sky, and this is for just a few hours. This operational restriction can be turned into a significant scientific advantage because it is then possible to study how specific objects evolve over days, weeks and months, as SALT will have access to seventy per cent of the sky."

The project is also exciting because South Africa is committed to making the project a success, seeing SAAO and SALT as an inspiration for this young country's developing aspirations, thereby driving science and technology enterprise through its unique capabilities in astronomy.

The SALT project is led by African astronomers, engineers and electronics experts, together with international partners from the US, Poland, Germany, New Zealand and the UK. The University of Southampton is one of six UK universities that joined the $30 million flagship international project and Phil will continue his close ties with Southampton during his secondment.

Phil Charles was born in Swanwick, Hampshire in 1950 and obtained a BSc in Astronomy at University College London in 1972, before going on to take his PhD at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory. Following a postdoctoral appointment at the Space Sciences Laboratory of the University of California at Berkeley (where he was a regular observer at Lick Observatory), he became a principal lecturer and then Head of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford. In 2000 he was appointed to the newly-created Chair of Astronomy at Southampton, the country's premier research centre for his research specialism of high-energy astrophysics. His current interests include black holes, neutron stars and X-ray astronomy.

Through his involvement with the SALT project, Phil will be able to further his research into the physical properties of black holes and neutron stars.

Phil says: "Big telescopes can see fainter more distant stars. But the big surface area of the telescope also means that it can look at very bright objects for fractions of seconds, even milliseconds. This will enable us to study physical processes taking place near or on black holes and neutron stars which happen on very short timescales. We should be able to observe what actually happens to matter just before it disappears over the event horizon into a black hole. This is something that the SALT project can exploit as there is no-one else doing this. In the longer term, these observations might help us finally prove - or even disprove! - the General Theory of Relativity."

Notes for editors

  1. A digital image of Professor Phil Charles is available from Media Relations on request.
  2. For more information about SAAO and SALT, visit www.salt.ac.za
  3. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University has over 19,200 students and 4,800 staff and plays an important role in the City of Southampton. Its annual turnover is in the region of £250 million.

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