SA takes lead on astronomy with Salt
Sutherland - The National Research Foundation has re-launched the Southern African Large Telescope (Salt) in Sutherland.
This changes the focus from engineering the instrument to one ready for scientific work at the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere.
"This telescope has clearly caught the imagination and the spirit of all the people of South Africa, and it represents their aspirations for the future," Salt chair Professor Ted Williams told News24 at the launch event.
Williams, from Rutgers University, said that Salt was the result of years of working on the vision of expanding astronomy, particularly in the southern hemisphere.
"Rutgers has a long history of involvement with South Africa. We supported the people during the dark days of Apartheid, we celebrated with them at the dawning of democracy.
"We're now investing financial resources, time and talent in participating in building the new South Africa."
Williams said Salt represents the aspirations for South Africans. The re-launch of the instrument on Monday was attended by representatives of the consortium as well as officials from the department of science and technology and local and provincial government.
"Today we should not be asking 'What is Salt?' We should be asking 'Who is Salt?' It's all of us: All of us who have laboured to bring it about, it is those who will use it to explore the distant depths of the universe, it is those who see in it the bright future of an old country made new again."
Astronomers agreed that the instrument was critical in helping to understand the universe.
"Our voyage as astronomers is one of both space and time. And many of the projects that have been accepted for this telescope will be looking back in time.
"They'll be looking at objects as light left them before the sun or the Earth was ever formed and long before there was any life on Earth.
"Together these things will probe the distant universe and the close universe and provide new insight into how things started and on the fundamental laws of physics and how things will evolve into the future," astronomer Professor Patricia Whitelock said.
She reminded the audience that all South Africans had a vested interest in Salt.
"Perhaps what’s most impressive about this telescope is that it’s ours. Every single person in this room and… indeed people in South Africa have a stake in this telescope.
"It's owned by an international consortium with partners from Germany, India, Poland, UK, USA, New Zealand and South Africa, all of whom are represented here today, and all of whom are very important in making it work."
Whitelock said that the South African investment into astronomy in general and Salt specifically would help drive innovation and human capacity building that would have a positive impact on the country.
"There are certain areas where you have to leapfrog over the problems of today and place yourself in the forefront. We're exceedingly fortunate that astronomy was recognised as one of those areas.
"As a result of this vision, the government of South Africa, through the department of science and technology has invested very heavily in astronomy.
"This government investment in astronomy brings with it a huge obligation to the community of astronomers and engineers. We have resources that other people only dream about," she said.
She added that it was imperative that the benefit of the research into astronomy should translate into real benefits for the country as a whole.
One of the benefits of the research is investment into education and outreach programmes run by the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) both in urban areas and the underdeveloped regions like Sutherland.
The department of science and technology has also established research chairs at universities to encourage the study of astronomy.
"We're doing that [investing] through outreach and education - every level from primary up to post graduate training - and we've been extremely fortunate that with our international partners that many of them, through no obligation to them, that they have joined with us and provided resources that have allowed us to do much more that we would have done alone," Whitelock said.
She said that astronomy had the potential to place in context global problems that seemed insurmountable.
"The universe is extraordinarily unbelievably vast and also very beautiful. And the Earth is very small. And once one really perceives that difference - the whole scale of the Earth fitting into the universe - it's very difficult to believe that differences that sometimes seem huge, are really significant at all.
"My strongest hope is that astronomy can make a real difference in bringing people together."
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