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South Africa unveils its big eye on the sky

The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) will enable scientists to view stars and galaxies a billion times too faint to be visible to the naked eye -- about as luminous as a candle's flame on the moon would appear, seen from the earth.
Visitors walk past the dome housing the Southern African Large Telescope perched on a remote and windswept hill in South Africa's arid Karoo region
Visitors walk Thursday past the dome housing the Southern African Large Telescope, perched on a remote and windswept hill near Sutherland in South Africa's arid Karoo region.Mike Hutchings / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

South Africa on Thursday unveiled the southern hemisphere’s biggest telescope, intended to catch glimpses of the early universe and shed light on how it turned from “smooth” to “clumpy”.

The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) will enable scientists to view stars and galaxies a billion times too faint to be visible to the naked eye -- about as luminous as a candle’s flame on the moon would appear, seen from the earth.

It will probe quasars, which resemble bright stars at the center of galaxies but are believed to be powered by black holes, and are some of the most distant objects in the universe.

The light reaching us now left them billions of years ago and we see them as they were then.

“SALT gives us the ability to look far back in time,” Dr David Buckley, the project scientist, told Reuters in an interview at the launch.

“When the universe was very young it was smooth and had a uniform distribution but now it is quite clumpy,” Buckley said.

“You look at the night sky and the stars are scattered all over the place. We want to find out how this happened.”

Clear skies
SALT is a massive hexagon 11 meters in diameter filled with smaller mirrored hexagons. It captured its first images of distant galaxies and stars in September.

The observatory housing it near the town of Sutherland is a startling sight, its huge white domes set against the arid landscape of South Africa’s Karoo region, selected for its clear skies and remoteness from city lights.

The large and small Magellanic clouds, galaxies that orbit our own Milky Way, can be seen from the southern hemisphere but not the northern, and are close enough for detailed study.

South African President Thabo Mbeki attended an inaugural ceremony for the telescope on Thursday and said it represented “the further liberation of humanity from blind action informed by superstition”.

“This observatory, empowered by cutting-edge science, engineering and technology and staffed by the most excellent and daring inquiring minds, must help to free us from the seductive grip of the astrologers,” he said.

The telescope has been funded by a range of institutions from South Africa and around the world.

Science and Technology Minister Mosibudi Mangena said SALT was initially conceived as a clone of the Hobby-Eberly telescope in Texas, but local astronomers had redesigned the optical system, allowing it to produce images almost two and a half times as bright.