SAAO is the National Research Facility for optical and infrared astronomy, with headquarters in Cape Town. The research telescopes are located 360km away outside Sutherland in the Northern Cape, where they explore the dark clear skies from the observing plateau.
SAAO is responsible for managing the operations of the 10m-class Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) on behalf of an international consortium. South Africa is the leading partner with approximately 33% shareholding. Other partners include the USA, Germany, India, Poland, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
SALT is the largest single telescope in the southern hemisphere, and is equipped with state-of-the-art imaging, spectroscopic and polarimetric instruments. Although very similar to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) in Texas, SALT has a redesigned optical system, providing greater throughput, larger field-of-view and improved image quality. SAAO also operates the existing suite of small telescopes at Sutherland, which include:
- the 0,5m and 0,75m telescopes redeployed for public outreach and student training; and
- the 1,9m and 1m telescopes used for competitive research projects, and to support SALT’s operations by complementary imaging and photometric calibration observations.
SAAO also hosts a half-dozen international specialist telescopes which conduct infrared surveys, searches for exoplanets and near-Earth asteroids, and oscillations on the Sun. The majority of these facilities are robotic.
In support of four of the NRF’s five strategic goals, SAAO plans the following activities:
Goal: Promote internationally competitive research
- Generate an archive of processed SALT data and implement its subsequent distribution;
- Provide the academic community with access to SAAO facilities and SALT expertise; and
- Provide access to international databases through an African Virtual Observatory (VO) and educate users in the use of VO tools.
Goal: Grow a representative science and technology workforce
- Support the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP). This flagship training programme in astronomy is run by a consortium of nine South African universities and three National Research Facilities to enable South Africans to maximise their share of time on SALT, HESS (High-Energy Stereoscopic System) and the new facilities for radio astronomy (such as KAT, MeerKAT and SKA);
- Redesign and re-establish the strategy to encourage PhD graduates as part of the Astronomy Geographical Advantages Programme (AGAP);
- Run the SALT Collateral Benefits Programme with specific emphasis on the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009) through networks and partnerships to stimulate “training trainers”; and
- Create awareness of the economic benefits of science to the Northern Cape through astro-tourism.
Goal: Provide cutting-edge research, technology and innovation platforms
- Operate SALT on behalf of the SALT international partnership;
- Develop and transfer core competencies in electronic, optical and mechanical high-precision design and manufacture as well as expertise in charge-coupled device (CCD) engineering; and
- Integrate SALT and the small telescope operations.
Goal: Contribute to a vibrant national innovation system
- Advance the Astronomy Geographical Advantages Programme (AGAP) strategy to provide a holistic long-term plan for optical, radio and gamma-ray astronomy;
- Host the Space Secretariat of the interdepartmental National Working Group on Space Science and Technology;
- Provide leadership regarding the scientific component of the South African Space Agency;
- Support the establishment of the African Institute of Space Science (AISS) through the Space Secretariat that will drive initiatives to set up networks for AISS;
- Promote astronomy in Africa by hosting research visits and representing the International Astronomical Union in visits to African countries;
- Ensure South African participation in the next two International Astronautical Congresses to build capacity to organize the 62nd International Astronautical Congress in Cape Town in 2011 for which South Africa won the bid in 2008; and
- Consolidate capabilities in space-related activities in the Western Cape by establishing an interdisciplinary platform.
SAAO faces the following challenges in the next four years:
- Work towards a Sutherland-CT fast data link for (near) real-time processing of SALT data, transforming it into immediately scientifically valuable material. This link will also reduce data bulk;
- Link SALT as a remote software-driven facility into the International Virtual Observatory – a global development that will enhance the provision of fully reduced online archival data for scientific use;
- Coordinate (through AISS) international support for regional and African space science and technology around large-scale facilities such as SALT, HESS, SKA, KAT, Sumbandila-SAT and the proposed African Resource Monitoring Constellation.