SALT Conference 2015

Jul 10, 2015

by Dr Nicola Loaring

The SALT Science Conference 2015


The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) Foundation and South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) are delighted with the success of the SALT Science Conference 2015 held in Stellenbosch from the 1st to the 5th June. The programme was jam-packed with talks, poster presentations, practical workshops and discussions showcasing SALT’s capabilities. Over ninety astronomers and education professionals attended the conference representing over twenty nationalities. Delegates from international astronomical institutes from seven countries attended the conference to foster scientific collaborations and enhance partnerships with the South African astronomical community. Education and outreach professionals also contributed to the conference programme in recognition of the pivotal role that SALT has played in the advancement of astronomy and science education and in skills development within South Africa.

Construction of the SALT telescope, just outside Sutherland in the Karoo, was completed in 2005. Following initial testing and performance verification the telescope started full science operations in late 2011. The SALT science conference, held in Stellenbosch from the 1st – 5th June 2015 brought together scientists from around the world to celebrate the success of SALT and to foster new scientific collaborations.

The event was formally opened by the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor. Her vision sees South Africa as a centre for research excellence in astronomy:

“Our aim is to position Africa as a global centre of research excellence for multi-wavelength astronomy, with optical, radio and gamma-ray telescopes working together to achieve common scientific goals.”

She was keen to emphasize the importance of South Africa’s experience in developing SALT in paving the way for South Africa’s successful bid to host what will be the largest telescope ever built, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, due for completion in 2024:

“South Africa pursued the SKA project by using the lessons learnt from SALT as the basis for our planning and partnerships. The links we developed through the SALT project allowed us to build on existing networks and partnerships to secure the iconic SKA, an extremely important strategic initiative that puts science and technology to work for the benefit of all Africans.”

As well as acknowledging the key role that SALT has played for science and technology development in South Africa, educators at the conference also stressed how the wonder and beauty of astronomy can be used to inspire and encourage young learners to take up science and mathematics (STEM) subjects at school. Since its inception, the SALT project has placed a strong focus on education and public awareness programmes and Sivuyile Manxoyi, head of the SALT collateral benefits programme, summarised the work of the outreach department at the SAAO during his conference presentation:

“We have been very successful in training and supporting teachers and curriculum advisors in the teaching of Natural Science and particularly the theme ‘Earth and Beyond’. Through programmes such as the national astronomy quiz we have succeeded in using astronomy to inspire curiosity and critical thinking among learners. Through our exciting job shadowing programme, we are spreading career information pertaining to astronomy and related science.”

For the remainder of the conference the focus shifted to the practicalities of optimizing the use of the telescope and showcasing the recent exciting and varied science conducted using SALT observations.

Dr Steve Crawford, SALT Science Data Manager pointed out:

“Since the start of science operations, SALT has been producing exciting science at a comparable rate as similar telescopes at the same stage in their operations, but at a fraction of the cost. This is a huge compliment to the SALT staff and the astronomers working with the observatory. “

SALT operations staff also held several training workshops during the conference to help potential SALT users apply for telescope time and to aid them analyse SALT data products using software tools developed by the SALT team.

In terms of science, the areas covered ranged from planetary science, stellar astrophysics to studies of galaxies and the distant universe. A large portion of the conference focused on the variable universe, a niche area for SALT’s unique capabilities. SALT’s imaging instrumentation is tailored towards achieving high time resolution observations of varying objects and transient (short-lived) objects.

Dr Petri Vaisanen, Head of SALT Astronomy Operations commented:

“Listening to the talks at the conference from an operational point of view, it was extremely gratifying to see so many scientists, from students to professors, getting results from SALT. People are finding out exciting things about the Universe from analysis of the data we have been dishing out to them under the Sutherland night skies for years, it makes the work worthwhile.”  

Dr David Buckley, chair of the conference scientific organising committee and SALT Scientist added:

“SALT has really come of age. This is demonstrated by the breadth and quality of the science results presented. Over the past couple of years there has been a steady improvement in the efficiency and productivity and SALT’s community of users have learned how to best exploit it to their advantage. This has resulted in a ramping up of science publications showing that SALT is beginning to make a significant contribution in forefront astronomy, partly due to some of the competitive advantages that it has.”

Finally, the conference finished with considerations and prospects for future SALT science. Dr Marsha Wolf from the University of Wisconsin, US, detailed the proposed extension of SALT ’s capabilities into the near-Infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. If implemented this will allow astronomers to observe even more distant objects than is presently possible with SALT. This is because the light from distant galaxies is “redshifted” into the near-Infrared as a consequence of the expansion of the Universe. Extending into the near-Infrared will also allow observations of objects that are enshrouded in gas and dust which are not possible using visible light alone. 

Prof. Bruce Bassett, joint Professor at SAAO, UCT and AIMS in Cape Town introduced methods that he has developed employing computer algorithms to automate the classification of transient objects. The volume of data that astronomers will need to analyse will increase significantly once the SKA comes online and automating data analysis wherever possible will be crucial in order to fully exploit SALT and SKA in the future.

One of the key take home messages from the conference was the importance of using SALT together with other ground based and space based observatories such as the SKA radio telescope and the European Space Agency’s Euclid satellite mission.

Dr David Buckley, commented:

“The meeting was well attended by SALT users, both within South Africa and abroad. Importantly many graduate students who’s early careers are taking full advantage of SALT attended. The future for SALT looks assured, particularly with planned new developments and synergies with emerging facilities in South Africa and globally.”

The prospects for SALT and astronomy in general within South Africa are brighter than they have ever been. Exciting times lie ahead, however, to fully understand the wonders of our Universe it is now clear that astronomers will have to adopt a multi-wavelength approach and peer at the skies with a combination of telescopes!

A link to the conference website can be found here

SALT and SAAO would like to thank the NRF and DST for funding the SALT Science Conference 2015.