SALT leaves scientists starry-eyed

Sutherland – Astrophysicists attached to the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) are observing supernovas "almost weekly", Naledi Pandor, Science and Technology Minister, was told during a tour of the facility on Friday. 

SALT is the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere and is sensitive enough to observe stars and galaxies thousands of light years from earth. 

"There was one just this past week," said Dr Ramatlhodi Sefako, one of only three black astrophysicists in the country. 

It is good news for academics attached to SALT, he said, because they are observing rare happenings.

Supernovas are massive explosions that occur at the end of the life of a star.

The supernovas may have occurred hundreds or thousands of years ago, but are only observed on earth now because of the vast distances the light of the explosions has to travel to get to earth.

New galaxies and black holes are also being discovered – though not so regularly.

Scientists normally do not talk about their finds until they have been published in scientific journals and have been reviewed by peers. 

"Supernovas are one of the things that are discovered almost weekly or on a monthly basis. It's a big thing because some of these things are rare and do not happen closer to us. That's where the strength of SALT comes in.

"You wouldn't have seen it otherwise," Sefako said.

SALT has been in operation since 2005, when it took its first pictures.

Pandor was very excited by the spin-offs of SALT.

She visited a community centre where children from Sutherland are given computer lessons. The programs they work on are games that teach them about the stars and space.

Bursaries are available to those who want to study in astronomy and related fields.

"This is putting South Africa firmly on the world map in terms of science.

"It helps us to train young people at master's and PhD levels, our own engineers, our astrophysicists, but also allows many international researchers to come to Sutherland, to the Northern Cape, to South Africa, so really this science puts us at the centre of world research," Pandor said.

Apart from SALT, the Northern Cape hosts the Square Kilometre Array at Carnavon.

It will be the largest radio telescope in the world once it has been completed. Its precursor the Meerkat is expected to be operational in June this year.

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