Africa’s Giant Eye Opens for Business: Official Inauguration
Embargo Date: 10 September 2005, 8 a.m. UT
The construction of the single largest telescope in the southern hemisphere - SALT as it is called - will mean that in this humble home of our earliest humans, we are also building a vast gateway through which we can observe our earliest stars, learn about the formation of our galaxy and the lives of other worlds so as to give us insights into our future. We are proud that SALT will not only enable Southern African scientists to undertake important research, but also provide significant opportunities for international collaboration and scientific partnerships with the rest of the world – President Thabo Mbeki
A little over five years after groundbreaking, President Thabo Mbeki has officially opened the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) – the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, and equal to the largest in the world. Gathering more than 25 times as much light as any existing African telescope, SALT can detect objects a billion times too faint to be seen by the naked eye – as faint as a candle flame on the moon.
2005 has been the year when SALT began to reach its potential. In May, technicians installed the last of the 91 1-metre mirrors. On September 1 the SALT team released the first colour images from SALT's imaging camera, SALTICAM. Then, on October 11, the Robert Stobie Spectrograph was installed, the main tool SALT astronomers will use to analyse the light of distant stars and galaxies. At the same time, the final active optics for SALT’s primary mirrors was installed, and the final testing started.
Five years ago, on the first day of southern hemisphere spring, a few hundred people gathered for the SALT ground-breaking ceremony. On a windswept hilltop near the tiny Karoo town of Sutherland, home since the early 1970s to SAAO's research telescopes, dignitaries turned the first soil. Now, at the official opening, more than a 1000 guests thronged the same desert hilltop, joining representatives of the partner institutions on 4 continents who financed and built the new giant telescope (National Research Foundation of South Africa; Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences and a consortium of 3 Polish universities, comprising: Jagiellonian University, Nicolaus Copernicus University, and Adam Mickiewicz University; The Hobby-Eberly Telescope Board (representing Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Stanford University, The Pennsylvania State University, and The University of Texas at Austin); 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); United Kingdom SALT Consortium (UKSC), comprising: the Armagh Observatory, the University of Keele, the University of Central Lancashire, the University of Nottingham, the Open University and the University of Southampton.)
An Icon for SciTech Development and Cooperation – Within Budget
“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”, said project scientist David Buckley. “Indeed the SALT project has become an iconic symbol for what can be achieved in Science and Technology in the new South Africa.” SALT is not simply a South African project, however. It is an international partnership involving 11 different partners from 6 countries on 4 continents – including Germany, Poland, New Zealand, the UK and the USA. A talented team of mostly local engineers and scientists has succeeded in building SALT on a rapid – for big telescope projects, at least – five-year timescale. Not only that, but the cost of construction been kept to within the original budget of $20 million defined in 1998, even before the final designs were completed. According to Kobus Meiring, project engineer, “This is due in part to the fact much of the original design concept for SALT was modelled on the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas, giving a useful starting point and allowing SALT's engineers to make creative use of the 'lessons learned' with the only previous telescope of this type.”
Where the Money Came From
South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology contributed about a third of the total of $36 million that will finance SALT for its first 10 years ($20 million for the telescope, $6 million for instruments, $10 million for operations). The rest came from partners in Europe, the USA and New Zealand. Of South Africa's share, none came from the education, health or social welfare priorities that absorb the bulk of South Africa's budget. SALT's South African funding was achieved by reshuffling priorities within the normal science budget for five years.
Science Achieved and Progress to Come
Scientific observations have already begun with SALT using the imaging camera SALTICAM, although fine tuning will continue for several months yet. Many exciting possibilities in research are opening up with the installation of the major first generation instrument, the Prime Focus Imaging Spectrograph (designed and built for SALT by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Rutgers University) – now renamed the Robert Stobie Spectrograph in honour of the past SAAO Director and first Chairperson of the SALT Board, Dr Robert S. Stobie. It was Bob Stobie’s dedication and enthusiasm that helped launch, and later steer, the SALT project to success. His untimely death in May 2002 was felt by all his colleagues, and the renaming of this major instrument in his name is in recognition of his major role in the SALT project.
Since the declaration of first light announced in September that SALT had arrived on the astronomical scene, telescope and instrument commissioning have continued, as well as optimisation of SALT and its subsystems. This will continue for several months, but incredibly sharp (sub-arcsecond) images have been achieved, and spectroscopic trials have just begun. The scientists and engineers who have built SALT and its instruments confidently expect that SALT and its instruments will soon meet, or even exceed, all the original design goals.
SALT has unique capabilities. It is optimised for wavelengths and observing modes not available on other very large telescopes. Astronomers within the SALT consortium keenly look forward to the scientific fruits of what has been, until now, an extremely successful engineering project. Already proposals for observations have been submitted and approved, and observations with the imaging camera, SALTICAM have begun to bear fruit. Commissioning runs with the Robert Stobie Spectrograph are beginning. Like the SALT consortium itself, the science programmes to be conducted on SALT will be many and varied – from studies of the most distant and faint galaxies to observations of solar system objects like asteroids and comets.
The Information Age Telescope
SALT is truly representative of the century in which it has been built. It is not only a sophisticated computer-controlled precision instrument, but also an Internet-age telescope. Astronomers in the consortium don't need to travel to SALT to use it. Instead they submit their observing requests over the Internet and eventually, once the observations have been conducted by the dedicated SALT scientific and technical staff, they also receive their data over the Internet. In many respects SALT operates more like a space-based telescope such as CHANDRA or the Hubble Space Telescope, than like other large telescopes based here on Earth.
Bringing the Stars Home to Africa
But the scientific and engineering achievements of the SALT project would have fallen short of the vision that led the South African government (with standing applause from every political party) to approve SALT, unless it did more than provide a spectacular tool for southern African and overseas scientists to explore the universe and extend human knowledge.
Already the benefits have been tangible, with the provision of bursaries and scholarships to deserving South African students to study both in South Africa and abroad. These programmes have been directly sponsored by many of the partners in the SALT Foundation. A number of science education initiatives have also been catalysed by the project, and many more are foreseen. Financially South Africa has benefited by the awarding of ~60% of the contracts and tenders to construct SALT to South African industry, while total South African funding was only ~34% of the total, meaning a net inflow of foreign exchange. Likewise, many of the high tech aspects of the project were undertaken by South African industry, including the precision robotic tracking system. This has meant the acquiring of skills previously not present or fully realized in the country.
Astronomers from southern Africa will now be able to undertake endeavours undreamt of before the arrival of SALT. Its huge light collecting power will foster a growth in the study of galaxies and the evolution of the Universe. “Astronomers are also excited about looking at how things change over very short timescales, down to seconds or less. This opens up exciting new realms for studying black holes,” says SAAO Director Phil Charles.
Finally, SALT, like the science it will produce, has the gift of inspiring the imagination. Young visitors to SALT who stare in awe at the 'Giant Eye', explore time and space at the newly opened visitor centre, and peer through the new public viewing telescopes at night – and youth encountering SALT in the media or in the classroom – will know that cutting-edge science can happen in southern Africa as well as in the fully developed world. Sparking interest in science and technology, pulling bright young minds into careers in science and technology, is the real future benefit to South Africa.
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