Observing the Wonders of the Night Sky

Many people will automatically think of animals and varied landscapes when they think of South Africa. Others will think of the iconic Table Mountain and still others might think of past political struggles. Very few people think of the wonderful variety of stars which are often very clearly visible in the night sky above this lovely country.

South Africa is home to the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) through which distant stars and galaxies in the southern hemisphere can easily be seen. SALT is the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere. Its construction was funded by a syndicate of international partners from countries such as South Africa, Germany, Poland, the US, the UK and New Zealand. This massive telescope features a hexagonal mirror array that is 11 meters across and is similar to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope that is found in Texas. SALT is so powerful that it can be used to see stars in the skies above South Africa that are a billion times too faint to be seen with the naked eye. Fortunately this astronomical gem is not being kept from the public. Anyone who wants to learn more about the Southern African Large Telescope and perhaps see images taken with this powerful device can visit the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO). Both SAAO and SALT are located in Sutherland, which is about 360 km from Cape Town.

If you would like to visit the biggest telescope in the southern hemisphere and learn more about the sparkling southern skies far beyond what the naked eye can see, you can book a day or night tour at the SAAO. Bookings are essential if you wish to tour SALT and there is a maximum limit of 20 people per a tour. During the tour, guides will take you to the various buildings that have been made accessible for visitors and give you plenty of additional information about what you are seeing. Night tours have the added benefit of giving visitors the chance to use one of two dedicated visitor telescopes to examine the stars above. It is important to note that the entire center is a secure facility and that visitors do not have the freedom to wander the grounds at their leisure and do as they please. There is a reasonable fee for the tour and the money is used to fund SAAO’s education, socio-economic development and public outreach programs. Don’t miss out on this lovely attraction!