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Jo'Burg Days: A Newcomer To Southern Skies

“The telescope stands on one of the largest and most accurately laid concrete platforms ever created in South Africa, constructed without a bump or flaw and with less than one millimetre difference in the levels anywhere on its surface…’’ Barbara Durlacher was formerly opposed to the building of an expensive telescope in her homeland, but now she hails it as a scientific wonder.

In the second week of November 2005 President Mbeki inaugurated SALT, the South African Large Telescope, to the acclaim and applause of the scientific world.

Ten years ago, when this project was first mooted at an estimated cost of R14 million, I wrote a letter of protest to a national newspaper, voicing my opinion that this was a total waste of money; that there was absolutely no need for such a white elephant in this country with it’s overwhelming social needs, and so on. Since then I have come to realise how mistaken I was in my assumption that this was a waste of money, or that it would serve no good purpose except as a vastly expensive plaything for a select band of high level elitists.

SALT is situated in Sutherland, a tiny village 6000 ft above sea level, 360 miles from Cape Town, in the Roggeveld Mountains, somewhere in the Karoo. Sutherland and the surrounding areas are also famous for experiencing the lowest temperatures in the country, and during the southern hemisphere winters from June to August the daily weather maps show temperatures well below zero. The was one of the reasons for choosing this location for the telescope, together with the fact that Sutherland is one of the few places in the world where there is absolutely no interference from man-made illumination. No street or fluorescent lights; few houses or shops. The air is clean and unpolluted, and the night skies are some of the most beautiful and brilliant in the southern hemisphere.

Unheeding of my feeble protests, SALT was built, and already there are a number of partners in the consortium who will use the sophisticated facilities available. The brilliantly engineered and designed computerised operation of the telescope puts it into a tiny world-league of telescopes and deep space probes seeking to decipher the secrets of the skies, and with a final construction bill of just on R20 million it has been completed in time and met the budgetary constraints and scientific aspirations of the most demanding.

The telescope stands on one of the largest and most accurately laid concrete platforms ever created in South Africa, constructed without a bump or flaw and with less than one millimetre difference in the levels anywhere on its surface. The operating section of the scope rests on a cushion of air – rather like a hovercraft – and the hydraulically operated roof, specially engineered to allow the free passage of air to prevent optical distortions caused by slight interior and exterior temperature differences – allows work to continue to maximum wind speeds of 70kph. More than this and the giant telescope begins to wobble, endangering personnel and equipment.

Now my protests have changed to intense pride at what South African engineers and scientists have created. Many of the components and systems used in SALT were designed and made in this country and what’s more, at a lower cost and to higher quality standards than could have been obtained from overseas, thus saving millions of rands against imported alternatives.

SALT will create employment and generate an interest in scientific exploration of the heavens which nothing else could equal. So now I have changed my tune and gladly say, ‘What a wonderful investment in hope and foresight those clear thinking innovators had nearly twenty years ago, and what enormous benefits this scientific marvel will bring to this country.’

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