Lionel Mtshali, South Africa's minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, announced this week that the government is to foot half of the bill for the construction of the new Southern African Large Telescope (SALT).
The nine-metre instrument for optical and infrared astronomy will be the largest single optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. The government will contribute 50 million rand (US$10 million) towards the cost, its largest investment so far in a single scientific project.
“South Africa is sending a strong signal to the world that we are prepared to support fundamental science at an international level,” says Khotso Mokhele, president of the Foundation for Research Development, the research council under whose aegis the observatory falls.
The telescope, to be erected at the existing Sutherland site of the Southern African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in the Northern Cape Province, will complement the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the McDonald Observatory in Texas (see Nature 384, 607; 1996).
The balance of the costs may be met by foreign sources in exchange for observing time. “South Africa cannot go it alone in a project of this magnitude,” says Bob Stobie, SAAO director and chief architect of the project, who says he is “naturally delighted” with the government support.
Patricia Whitelock of SAAO says SALT's location and excellent viewing conditions will help studies in four areas: the early Universe and galaxy formation; galaxy populations; planetary searches; and quasars and active galactic nuclei.
A feasibility study has shown that South African industry can complete about half of the project's construction requirements. Technology transfer with US companies could have spin-offs for related areas of South African industry.