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SALT gives crystal clear images


Five years ago 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. Much has happened since that historic day, and SALT is now nearing completion. 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.

A major recent milestone was the installation in May of the last of the 91 hexagonal mirrors that comprise SALT’s mammoth primary mirror array, stretching 11 metres in diameter. The biggest milestone for 2005 will be the official opening of SALT on 10 November 2005 by South African President Thabo Mbeki.

“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 local engineers and scientists have succeeded in building SALT on a rapid – for big telescope projects at least – 5-year timescale. Not only that, but the cost of construction has been kept to within the original budget of $30 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.”

SALT is truly representative of the 21st century, since not only is it a sophisticated computer-controlled precision instrument, but it is also an Internet-age telescope. It will not be necessary for astronomers in the consortium to travel to SALT to use it. Instead they will submit their observing requests over the Internet and eventually, once the observations have been conducted by the dedicated SALT operations staff, they will also receive their data over the Internet. In many respects this makes SALT far more like a space-based telescope, like the Hubble Space Telescope, than its ground-based cousins. The operational model for SALT, with SAAO operating the telescope on behalf of SALT’s partners, will also be far closer to the way telescopes in orbit operate.

The benefits have been felt already by South Africans in a tangible way, with the provision of 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 fully realized in the country.

Finally, SALT, like the science it will produce, has the gift of inspiring the imagination. Young visitors to SALT, 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 in technology, pulling bright young minds into careers in science and technology, is the real future benefit to South Africa.

John McFarland | alfa
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