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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 November 2005, 00:42 GMT
SA telescope reaches for the stars
Southern African Large Telescope (Salt)
Salt is a prestigious project for South Africa
The largest single telescope in the Southern Hemisphere has been inaugurated in South Africa. The BBC's Nick Miles visited Sutherland shortly before the inauguration.

Set on a desolate plateau four hours from Cape Town, the Southern African Large Telescope (Salt), dominates its surroundings.

This site near the town of Sutherland has been the home of South Africa's main observatories for more than half a century, but the new telescope dwarfs the seven others that came before it.

It is the largest single telescope in the Southern Hemisphere and is largely financed by South Africa.

"This is an iconic project for Africa" says David Buckley, Salt's project scientist as he starts another night shift at the telescope.

"It brings together astronomers from across the continent and the rest of the world".

As the sun sets on a bleak plain in the arid Karoo region, the temperature plummets to below freezing.

Dr Buckley stands on a metal gangway looking down onto a sea of 91 hexagonal mirrors.

Cost saving

He talks into a two-way radio to an operator who starts up the alignment of the telescope for another night of observations.

This telescope could detect light the size of a candle flame on the moon
David Buckley
The huge machine lumbers into life, and 100 tons of metal, lifted on pistons, starts to rotate.

The domed roof opens, revealing the first stars of night time shining down on the telescopes' mirrors.

"We've designed the telescope at a fraction of the normal cost without losing any resolution," Dr Buckley says.

"We've focused on being able to detect low wavelength light so this machine is able to see things other telescopes can't."

Location

The site of the telescope helps as well: 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) above sea level on a plateau hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town.

Buckley
Observation conditions are near perfect, says David Buckley

There's very little atmospheric or light pollution and that means near-perfect observing conditions.

"This telescope could detect light the size of a candle flame on the moon," Dr Buckley says.

"This is an iconic project for Africa - scientists from all over the world are already using this facility".

Dr Buckley makes some checks beneath the telescope, a labyrinth of wires and pistons. He's joined by Sandisa Siyengo, a 23-year-old physics graduate.

He is part of a small but growing group of young black scientists involved with SALT.

"For decades under apartheid black people were given a sub-standard education," he says.

"I know where my country has come from and I'm happy that we're being given the chance to get involved in science".

Controversy

The Salt programme is a prestigious flagship project.

But it cost the South African government $10m - the remainder of the $30m cost was borne by universities and research bodies around the world.

I would have preferred seeing the millions of dollars spent on this project going towards training more teachers and buying better equipment for schools
Sakkie Blanchay, Democratic Alliance

Some people question whether that $10m should have been targeted at some of country's other educational needs.

"Many people across south Africa don't have access to schools with any books" says Sakkie Blanchay, the science spokesman from the opposition Democratic Alliance party.

"I would have preferred seeing the millions of dollars spent on this project going towards training more teachers and buying better equipment for schools".

Seeds of knowledge

Pelican Park school on the impoverished Cape Flats area near Cape Town is the kind of place Mr Blanchay has in mind.

In the tiny classroom that acts as the science laboratory there are few books and no equipment for any kind of experiments.

You might expect some reservation amongst the teachers about spending so much money on the Salt telescope, but the feeling about the project at Pelican Park is largely positive.

"The children at the school are going to visit the telescope next month and I expect that it will inspire them for a long time to come", says Pelican Park head teacher, Logi Kismagani.

"Even if the kids come back to classrooms without furniture the seed of knowledge will have been sown in them."

Weighing up the balance between addressing basic educational shortfalls and inspiring a population with large-scale projects is a constant conundrum for politicians.

The South African government feels it's getting that balance right.

"It helps to invest in science because those countries that have done so have been able to get out of poverty much more quickly," says Mosibudi Mangena, South Africa's minister for science.

"Of course we should help those people who are in poverty but in the long term it is better to train people and inspire them to look after themselves."




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
See the largest single telescope in the Southern Hemisphere



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