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From desktop to distant galaxy


Science students at The University of Nottingham will be soon be able to explore distant stars in faraway galaxies by logging on to their PCs, following the release of the first colour images from a state-of-the-art giant telescope.

Students and staff in the Schools of Chemistry and Physics and Astronomy will be using the SALT (South African Large Telescope) to study how stars and galaxies form, to detect planets around other stars, and to learn about the chemicals in space that may form the basis of life. They plan to access the high-tech instrument through the internet.

SALT is the largest single telescope in the southern hemisphere, with a 91-segment hexagonal mirror array 11 metres across. Five years after construction began, the first colour images from space taken by the telescope’s new $600,000 digital camera SALTCAM, have now been released and astronomers have been amazed at their quality. The ’first light’ sample images were shot during the camera’s first trial period of operation.

The £11 million project has been funded by national research agencies and universities in South Africa, Germany, Poland, the USA, New Zealand and the UK. The University of Nottingham is one of six UK institutions that came together in 2000 to form the UK SALT Consortium (UKSC), which has invested more than $1 million. Nottingham is the administering institution for UKSC, led by Project Administrator Dr Trevor Farren, Business Development Officer in the School of Chemistry.

Peter Sarre, Professor of Chemistry and Molecular Astrophysics in the School of Chemistry, said: “To build a huge telescope of this kind is an enormous feat of engineering, and it’s been built to schedule and to budget. We are thrilled with the first images and can’t wait for the commissioning to be completed and for our research projects to begin.”

Arfon Smith, one of Professor Sarre’s postgraduate students, has recently returned from the telescope’s base at Sutherland near Cape Town, where he worked on a short project developing part of the computing software.

Arfon said: “When I first came to Nottingham I had no idea I’d get to be involved with such an exciting project as SALT. A telescope of this size will allow me to look back to the early universe for organic molecules — the building blocks of life.”

Professor Gordon Bromage, Chairman of the UK SALT Consortium, said: “SALT is truly representative of this century. Not only is it a sophisticated computer-controlled precision instrument, but it is also an internet-age telescope. It will no longer be necessary for astronomers to travel to South Africa to use it. Instead, they will submit their observing requests and receive the resulting data over the internet.

“In many respects this makes SALT far more like a space-based telescope like the Hubble Space Telescope.”

The Vice-Chancellor of The University of Nottingham Sir Colin Campbell attended the ground-breaking ceremony at the start of the project five years ago and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research Professor Don Grierson will represent the University at a ceremony on November 10, when South African president Thabo Mbeki will officially open SALT.

Emma Thorne | alfa
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