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UK astronomers to be transported from desktop to distant galaxy as first colour images are released

Published: 
1 September 2005

Astronomers at the University of Southampton can use their PCs to spot stars as faint as a candle on the Moon using a record-breaking new telescope located in South Africa.

The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the largest in the southern hemisphere and equal to the largest in the world, was built by partners in six countries. The University of Southampton is a member of the six-strong UK consortium.

The £11 million SALT project has now released its first colour images from space, five years after construction started. The UK consortium of Southampton, together with Armagh Observatory, the University of Keele, the University of Central Lancashire, the University of Nottingham, and the Open University, and their partners in Germany, Poland, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA, have been amazed at the quality of the images, which are the first taken by SALT's new US $600,000 digital camera, SALTICAM.

The 'first light' sample images were shot during the camera's first trial period of operation, which also achieved SALT's first significant scientific results.

Professor Malcolm Coe, Head of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Southampton, 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: "I am delighted with these First Light images and results that demonstrate the level of operation we have already attained. Of course, we expect these capabilities to improve further as the final construction work is completed and commissioned, particularly the mirror's-edge sensors that maintain the mirror "shape".

"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."

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 major first generation instrument, the Prime Focus Imaging Spectrograph. SALT science programmes will vary from studies of the most distant and faint galaxies to observations of asteroids and comets in our own solar system.

The University of Southampton has a contract to train students for SALT and there are currently two 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, which has been completed on time and in budget, will be handed over to SAAO Director, Professor Phil Charles, in November. South African President Thabo Mbeki will officially open SALT on 10 November. Professor Malcolm Coe and the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Bill Wakeham, will attend the inauguration ceremony.

Notes for editors

  1. The SALT First Light Images

    The images included show a first indication of SALT's capabilities. While the imaging quality is not yet at its final optimal value, the sheer light gathering power of the telescope is amply demonstrated.  Images are posted at http://www.saao.ac.za/~sbp/firstlight.html

    Front page image


    The Lagoon Nebula is a region about 3800 light years away in which stars of high mass and luminosity are being born, emitting enough ultraviolet radiation to stimulate atoms in the surrounding gas clouds to emit light. This eerie glow typical of an "emission nebula" is shown in this colourful SALTICAM image. The enormous light-gathering capability of SALT will allow scientists to study motions in the gas cloud, as well as other details that may revise our ideas of how stars are born. We may better understand how stars in the Lagoon interact with the cloud in which they form, and with previous generations of stars.
  2. 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 around 20,000 students and nearly 5000 staff. Its annual turnover is in the region of £270 million.
  3. Additional Information

    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 spin-off benefits it could bring to the country. Already the benefits have been tangible. 60 per cent of the contracts and tenders to construct SALT were awarded to South African industry, while total South African funding was only 34 per cent 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)

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