Deep space views from a new angle

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SUTHERLAND, South Africa -- It's a 60-mile drive off the main highway in South Africa's Northern Cape to this 19th-century wool-producing town, but the desert landscape is so desolate it can feel as if the distance is 6,000 miles. The narrow tar road wiggles uphill past sheep-speckled bluffs and lonely windmills. A frigid wind howls. The sky opens up. All signs of human life seem to disappear.

Then, just when it feels that you might have left Earth itself, a shiny dome-topped building perched on a barren windswept hilltop pokes above the horizon.

Scientists and engineers inside are putting the finishing touches on a telescope so powerful that it will be able to spot a flicker of candlelight on the moon.

Known as the Southern African Large Telescope or SALT, it will probe deeper into space than any other telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, enabling scientists to glimpse at stars, galaxies and quasars a billion times too faint to be seen with the naked eye -- and many of them not visible in the Northern Hemisphere.

Such views, when the telescope is finished next year, will enable astronomers to conduct research "right to the fundamental questions about the evolution of the universe," says David Buckley, SALT's project scientist.

SALT, like the Hubble Space Telescope, may help answer how large and how old the universe is, how fast the universe is expanding, what kinds of planets orbit other stars, how stars in nearby galaxies differ from stars near the sun, how the universe began and how it might all end.

This farming town of 3,000 people has no industry or nightlife, few cloudy days and little rainfall, and is hidden away in the hills of the Karoo, South Africa's vast prairie on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, offering some of the clearest views of the night skies anywhere in the world.

For more than three decades, South African and international researchers have come to the 6,000 foot-high observatory just outside Sutherland to explore the heavens. But they have always been limited by the size of their telescopes, the largest of which has a 1.9-meter mirror.

The 11-meter SALT, however, will propel this outpost into one of the world's premier sites for observing the southern skies.

Yet, unlike large telescopes in other parts of the world, SALT is raising as much interest about its effect on Earth as on our understanding of the stars.

South African astronomers have been discussing the possibility of building a large telescope for more than a decade, but the sweeping political changes that brought about the end of apartheid in 1994 made such a luxury good a distant, if impossible, dream.

The question that dogged the project from the start was whether South Africa could ever justify building a $30 million telescope. With so many pressing social needs, including widespread poverty, rising AIDS infections and millions of families living without such basics as running water or flush toilets, why should South Africa spend its limited resources exploring galaxies and stars millions of light-years away?

Embracing science

The answer the government gave surprised many South African scientists. In its first policy statement on science and technology in 1996, the black-led South African government embraced the idea of funding research into pure sciences.

Not to fund them, the government statement concluded, "would be to take a negative view of our future -- the view that we are a second-class nation, chained forever to the treadmill of feeding and clothing ourselves."

Just as South African astronomers were dusting off plans for a telescope, a group of American and German astronomers constructing the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas were exploring the possibility of building a twin telescope in the Southern Hemisphere and invited South Africa to join the partnership.

Unlike most telescopes, which depend on massive, expensive engineering to allow it to point anywhere in the sky, the Hobby-Eberly telescope rotates at a fixed tilt, allowing for a view of 70 percent of the sky, but at a construction cost of just 20 percent of conventional telescopes.

A plan to build a twin telescope in South Africa won the support of South Africa's National Research Foundation and in 1998 the government approved a plan to fund up to 50 percent of the project, with the rest of the money coming from universities in Germany, New Zealand, Poland, Britain and the United States.

One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the project has been South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has dubbed the telescope Africa's "gigantic eye on the universe."

The success of the telescope, however, will be measured as much by what it does for scientific education, industrial empowerment and public outreach as it does for the field of astronomy.

The SALT project is already planning for thousands of tourists, teachers and schoolchildren to visit each year, focusing on underprivileged schoolchildren who have little exposure to science.

South African astronomers are also being called on to jump-start astronomy programs at South Africa's historically black universities, where it has not been offered as a field of study.

"The face of astronomy today is still white and male," says Thebe Medupe, a 30-year-old black South African astronomer who hopes to use SALT to continue his research on pulsating stars. The telescope should be a resource for students and teachers across the African continent, Medupe says.

"There's a perception that black people are not interested in astronomy. But blacks don't know you can make a career of out of astronomy," he said.

Inspiring the young

Medupe should know. As a boy growing up in the black homeland, Medupe attended poor schools that offered little science training. That didn't stop him. He built a telescope to watch the return of Haley's Comet, entered science competitions and was accepted to study astronomy at the University of Cape Town.

Now as a professor of astronomy at the University of North West in Mafikeng, his hometown, he is hoping to inspire other students to follow in his footsteps.

Other South African astronomers hope the telescope will show the world that top-notch astronomy is not reserved for the developed world.

"There's a lot of interest in what can be seen from the Southern Hemisphere that can't be seen in the north," says Michael Feast, a professor of astronomy at the University of Cape Town.

Perhaps the most popular sights in the southern skies are the Magellanic Clouds, and the center of the Milky Way, which can be difficult to see in the north.

With the completion of SALT, astronomers' views of the southern skies in South Africa will finally match the powerful twin Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

"It's taken a long time to catch up," Feast said.

But Feast and his fellow South Africans will not be able to relax for long. Plans are under way to build even larger more powerful telescopes, including one called the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope, which would be 10 times the size of SALT.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
46°