On the top of the hill: A visual tour of the telescopes

After our tour had officially ended, we were allowed to drive around the site on our own, using the small brochure that we had picked up at the visitors’ centre to guide us.

We were amazed to see how many different telescopes and other instruments are located up here… no doubt, we didn’t see all of them. As we learned from the handy brochure, the telescopes up here are all reflectors, which means that they use mirrors to gather light from the stars, instead of lenses. The strength or power of a telescope is thus determined by the size of the mirror.

It is not just South African astronomical facilities that you find here, but also numerous international instruments. The Big Daddy of them all is obviously SALT (its hexagonal mirror array is 11 m across!), the result of collaboration with various countries – South Africa, Germany, India, New Zealand, Poland, the UK and the USA. The SAAO has a couple of smaller telescopes here, ranging in diameter from 0.5 m to 1.9 m. Other countries are represented too: Japan, Germany, Korea, Poland, and the USA. In addition, because Sutherland is a quiet seismic environment, it hosts “a seismograph that forms part of an international network to monitor earthquakes and nuclear explosions” (SAAO Brochure).

It is all quite fascinating.

I have tried to identify the various facilities in the photos, but I’m not always sure that I’ve gotten it correct!  Information comes from the SAAO brochure and website, and from an excellent book by Wolfgang Lange, From Sea to SALT.

Photo 1:

Looking down on the Visitor Centre, the accommodation buildings, workshops and other buildings.

Photo 1

Photo 1

Photo 2:

On the far left of the photo, the black roof peeking over the spherical dome is part of the Yonsei Survey Telescope for Astronomical Research (YSTAR) – “A cooperation between SAAO and Yonsei University, Korea, to host a station in an international Korean-led effort to monitor variable stars and other transient events.” This 0.5 m telescope also searches for near earth objects, such as asteroids.

The two small spherical domes are Solaris-1 and Solaris-2, from the Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomy Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Poland. They are part of a global network of four 0.5 m robotic telescopes, known as Solaris, which is searching for extrasolar planets.

To their right is – maybe – the Monitoring Network of Telescopes (MONET) of the University of Göttingen in Germany. Two fully automatic 1.2 m robotic telescopes will be located at the observatory sites of partner institutions in Texas and South Africa.

And next to it is – perhaps – the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT-South) of Vanderbilt University in the USA. It is “a small scientific telescope that is designed to detect transiting extrasolar planets.” (http://www.saao.ac.za/science/research-groups/bang/stell-01/kelt-south-transiting-exoplanets/)

To their right – in the distance – appears to be the 0.75 m Alan Cousins Telescope, which does robotic photometry of stars.

The arched-roof building with the brick wall in the foreground is the Wide Field Cryogenic Telescope II (SUMI-hut) from the Nagoya University, Japan.

Photo 2

Photo 2

Photo 3:

This is a closer shot of the two telescopes that I haven’t been able to identify.

Photo 3

Photo 3

Photo 4:

The small shed-like building on the far left houses SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets). Coordinated by Keele University’s Astrophysics Group, this is the UK’s leading extra-solar planet detection programme.

The small antenna to its right, barely visible, is part of the micro-gravimeter, which measures small changes in the earth’s gravitation.

To its right is (I think) the 0.75 m Alan Cousins Telescope.

In the foreground, centre image, is the BISON (Birmingham Solar Oscillations Network) telescope, part of a cooperative program between the SAAO and Birmingham University: “This is one of six networked solar telescopes spread around the world which studies the 5-minute oscillations of the Sun.”

On the right are the three 1 m telescopes of the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope; these were only installed in 2013: “LCOGT is a private operating foundation, building a global network of telescopes for professional research and citizen investigations. Sutherland is the location of three 1-metre telescopes and three Aqawans.”

Photo 4

Photo 4

Photo 5:

In the background on the left are the three 1 m telescopes of the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope, with the Japanese Wide Field Cryogenic Telescope II (SUMI-hut) just in front of them.

On the right is the Infrared Survey Facility (IRSF), a joint Japanese-South African project; this telescope can take simultaneous images in three infrared bands, and is ideal for survey-type observations.

Photo 5

Photo 5

Photo 6:

You can see SALT in the distance on the left, and the 1 m Elizabeth Telescope in the foreground. The latter was built in 1962, and it originally stood at the SAAO in Observatory, until it was moved to its new home here in Sutherland in 1972.

To its right is the hatbox-shaped 1.9 m Radcliffe Telescope; this was the main telescope at the Radcliffe Observatory in Pretoria, dating back to 1948. When light pollution increased too much in the area, it was moved to the Sutherland site. Until SALT was inaugurated in 2005, it was the largest telescope in South Africa.

On the right is the 0.75 m Reflecting Telescope, which was also originally in Cape Town.

Photo 6

Photo 6

Photo 7:

Close-up of the Radcliffe and 0.75 m Reflecting Telescopes.

Photo 7

Photo 7

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little introduction to a fascinating place.


2 thoughts on “On the top of the hill: A visual tour of the telescopes

    • I agree, Truels. Richard’s work at the Square Kilometre Array and MeerKAT projects in the Northern Cape has made me more aware of how incomprehensibly vast the universe is, and of how lucky we are to be living on such a beautiful planet at this time…

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