Last Friday, work began outside the town of Sutherland, about 400 kilometres north-east of Cape Town, on building the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere.
The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), due to be completed by the end of 2004, is similar in design to the Hobby–Eberly Telescope at Fort Davis in Texas, and will give astronomers an equivalent facility for the southern hemisphere.
SALT can access 70% of the sky observable at Sutherland, and will gather 20 times more light than any other African telescope. This allows observation of many important objects from the southern hemisphere, such as the centre of the Milky Way and the two nearest galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds.
The cost of construction and operation for the first ten years will be around R200 million (US$30 million), a target that project scientist David Buckley says is just short of being met. Of this, 38% will come from the South African government, through the National Research Foundation.
The rest of the money is coming from universities in the United States, New Zealand and Germany, and from the Polish Academy of Sciences, which will receive a pro rata allocation of viewing time. Latest to join has been a consortium of UK institutions.
“The telescope will provide a focus for the development of basic sciences on the African continent,” said Ben Ngubane, minister of arts, culture, science and technology at the opening ceremony.
A novel aspect of the project is a collateral benefits plan, which aims to ensure that SALT benefits South African society. For example, as many components as possible will be made locally.