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Historic 'First Light' for SA's Giant Telescope
September 2, 2005

Business Day (Johannesburg)

September 2, 2005
Posted to the web September 2, 2005

Tamar Kahn

The Southern African Large Telescope (Salt) in Sutherland has achieved "first light", producing its first pictures of distant reaches of the universe, scientists said yesterday.

Salt is one of government's flagship science programmes, and is the largest telescope of its kind in the southern hemisphere.

The images produced with the telescope's camera, Salticam, proved to the international scientific community that Salt really was a going concern, said Salt board director Darragh O'Donoghue.

Construction of the telescope began five years ago, and it is due to be launched on November 10.

Astronomers will use the $30m telescope to probe parts of the universe never before studied, helping scientists understand more about the evolution of early galaxies, said Dave Laney, an astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town.

Scientists will also learn more about how star formation varies between galaxies such as our own Milky Way and the nearby Magellanic Clouds. Salt will enable these kinds of investigations because its massive array of 91 hexagonal mirrors, measuring 11m across, can detect light emitted from stars and other celestial bodies formed billions of years ago.

"Thetelescope could detect a candle flame at the distance of the moon," said Laney.

Astronomers had begun making their first scientific observations with Salt and planned to submit studies to international journals next month, said Donoghue.

Astronomers will not necessarily have to travel to Sutherland to use the telescope, but will get the observational data they request via the internet.

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Salt is an international collaboration involving research institutions and universities from SA, the US, UK, Germany, Poland, and New Zealand. SA contributed 31% of the telescope's budget. More than 60% of the telescope's costs had been spent locally, said project scientist David Buckley.

"Salt is not just a monument to science. It was built to persuade young people that first-rate science can happen here, and that we in Africa can explore science along with the best of them," said Laney.


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