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Professional observatories in Southern Africa

South African Astronomical Observatory

The South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) is a national facility for optical and infrared astronomy and forms part of the National Research Foundation (NRF). It has its headquarters in Cape Town and an observing station at Sutherland in the Karoo, where there are 1.9-m, 1.0-m, 0.75-m and 0.5-m telescopes as well as other special-purpose installations, forming part of international collaborations. Research is undertaken in many areas, such as variable stars, the Galactic Centre, the Magellanic Clouds and sources detected in x-rays and infrared light by satellites. These studies involve the use of spectroscopic, photometric and infrared techniques. Besides providing research facilities for its own staff, SAAO observing time is allocated to astronomers from South African universities and elsewhere in the world.

The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) is scheduled to start observations in 2005. When it is finished it will be the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, with an effective mirror diameter of 9.1 metres. The mirror comprises 91 individual 1-metre hexagonal spherically figured segments, which are continuously maintained at the correct position relative to each other by 480 electronic sensors and 273 precision actuators. The cost-effective mounting of the telescope relies on an advanced prime focus tracker and enables access to over 70 percent of the southern sky, from declination +10 to 75. Suitably placed targets will be observed for up to 3 hours at one time. SALTs pre-eminent role will be as a spectroscopic telescope, operating initially in the optical regime (320-900 nm), but with capability to the near infrared (~2 microns). SALT will also have imaging and photometry (measuring brightness) capabilities.

The SAAO headquarters in Observatory (Cape Town) and the SAAO observing site near Sutherland (including SALT) is open to visitors at certain times. Check the SAAO website for latest information.

Contact: SAAO Cape Town (Tel: 021-4470025), Sutherland Tourism Bureau (Tel: 023-5711265)
Websites: [] []

Further reading:

  • An entertaining account of the history of the SAAO, written by Ian Glass.

    Boyden Observatory

    Boyden Observatory, situated at Mazelspoort, 25 km from Bloemfontein, is owned by the Dept of Physics of the University of the Free State. Observing facilities include a recently upgraded 1.52-m telescope, a 0.41-m telescope, a 0.33-m refractor and a 0.20-m solar installation.

    Public and schools: Dr M J H Hoffman (Dept Physics & Boyden Observatory, University of the Free State; Tel: 051-4012924, e-mail []).

    In 2004 November, Juan Olivier of 87 Helicopter Flight School (Bloemspruit), and a member of the ASSA Bloemfontein Centre, took a series of aerial photographs of the Boyden facility, which he has kindly made available.

    Boyden Observatory on the Friends of Boyden website:


    The Friends of Boyden is an organization founded to foster public appreciation of the historical, cultural and scientific value of Boyden, to promote public interest in the affairs of the Observatory and to raise funds for the restoration and preservation of the installation. The Friends organize a number of activities such as popular lectures on astronomy and viewing sessions at Boyden. Membership of the Friends is open to all interested persons.

    For Friends of Boyden queries, contact: Braam van Zyl (Tel: +27 51 436 7555) or Prof. A Schoch (Tel: +27 51 436 6342).

    Website: []

    Further reading:

  • News Note: Boyden update

    Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory

    The Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO), 30 km NW of Krugersdorp, is a National Facility for radio astronomy managed by the NRF. The Director is Dr Justin Jonas. The 26-m telescope operates at 18, 13, 6, 5.0, 4.5, 3.6 and 2.5 cm wavelengths and is used for observations of interstellar and circumstellar molecules, pulsars, x-ray sources, quasars and active galaxies. The Observatory provides research facilities for astronomers in South African universities and internationally. It frequently participates in global networks of radio telescopes using the technique of Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). This has two purposes: high angular resolution imaging for astronomical purposes and high precision position determination for geodetic purposes. The Space Geodesy programme also operates a Satellite Laser Ranger and a network of Global Positioning System base stations. Visits by schools and other educational groups are welcomed. In addition, there are visiting days for the public once a month on a Saturday from 16:00 to 20:00. It is essential to book for all visits.

    Contact: Tel: 012-326 0742 weekdays 08:00 to 16:00 only.

    Website: []  e-mail: []


    UNISA Observatory

    The UNISA Observatory is situated on the main campus of the University, south of the city of Pretoria. Due to the lights from the city and its suburbs, the skies are not particularly dark, but the site is easily accessible and provides a secure environment for night-time visits. The Observatory houses a 14-inch (35-cm) computer-controlled telescope mounted on a fixed pier. The facility is used for public visits and for training students. It is equipped with a photometer, a spectroscope and a CCD camera.

    Research projects can also be carried out at the facility. Viewing evenings for the public can be arranged by appointment.

    Contact: Prof D P Smits. Tel: 012-429 6345. e-mail: []

    Website: []


    HESS Gamma-Ray Telescope

    HESS Gamma-Ray Telescope, Gamsberg, is a new high-energy gamma-ray telescope similar in principle to the Nooitgedacht instrument, but on a larger scale. It is situated near the Gamsberg, outside Windhoek, Namibia. It is a large multi-national project in which both some Southern African and many European countries participate. Partial operation began in 2002 and completion is expected in 2004.

    Website: []



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