Conducting research into astronomy and astrophysics, the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) is the national centre for optical and infrared astronomey. The primary telescopes are located in Sutherland, in the Northern Cape. Contributions by the SAAO include the development of a spherical aberration corrector and the Southern African Large Telescope, otherwise known as SALT.
SALT (Southern African Large Telescope) in winter Funded by a consortium of international partners from South Africa, Germany, Poland, India, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, SALT is the largest single optical telescope in the southern and among the largest 5 or so in the world. Its construction was completed 2005 and then a period of commissioning and testing followed between 2006 and 2009. After some problems with the telescope’s image quality were detected, the telescope was taken offline until mid-2010. Since then observation has been in full swing!
SALT is able to record distant stars, galaxies and quasars a billion times too faint to be seen with the unaided eye – as faint as a candle flame at the distance of the moon. SALT was erected on the South African Astronomical Observatory’s site near Sutherland. On this desert hilltop, far from city lights and pollution, SAAO has operated telescopes since the early 1970s.
It has a hexagonal primary mirror array 11 metres across, comprising 91 individual 1.2m hexagonal mirrors. Although very similar to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) in Texas, SALT has a redesigned optical system resulting in a larger field of view and effective collecting area.
SAAO (South African Astronomical Observatory) also operates SALT, under contract with the SALT Board, and the SALT design and engineering team is based at SAAO in Cape Town. The South African Astronomical Observatory is open to visitors at specific times. Qualified observers conduct the tours, which consist of a short slide presentation, a brief talk on SALT, a description of how astronomers collect data (with telescopes, PMTs and CCDs as props) followed by the much anticipated tour of the domes.
From Monday to Saturday there are 2 guided day tours per day and 4 night tours per week. A maximum of 20 people are allowed per tour. Booking is essential.
Day Tours: (Day tours entail a guided walk through the Visitor Centre as well as a guided tour of selected research telescopes including SALT)
Monday to Friday: 10:30 and 14:30