South Africa inaugurates largest telescope in southern hemisphere |

South Africa inaugurates largest telescope in southern hemisphere

CAPE TOWN, South Africa – The southern hemisphere’s largest single optical telescope with the power to study the most distant galaxies was inaugurated Thursday – a giant eye in the sky that took five years to build and cost $20 million.More than 1,000 guests gathered on a wind-swept hillside in the bleak Karoo desert to marvel at the Southern Africa Large Telescope, or SALT, which can gather more than 25 times as much light as any existing telescope in Africa, allowing studies of distant asteroids and comets.The telescope, 36 feet in diameter, can detect a candle flame as far away as the moon. It can record distant stars, galaxies and quasars a billion times too faint to be seen with the unaided eye. Quasars look like bright stars but are black holes at the center of galaxies and are some of the most distant objects across the universe.The Southern Hemisphere has other much smaller telescopes in Chile and Australia.”Even those of us who know nothing about astronomy have awaited this day with great anticipation, feeling, perhaps instinctively, that this giant eye in the Karoo would tell us as yet unknown and exciting things about ourselves,” said South African President Thabo Mbeki.”The great minds gathered here today … have the possibility to peer into ordinarily unimaginable vistas of time and space, to discover what the universe was like, when the first stars and galaxies were forming,” said Mbeki.Scientists hope the telescope will give them insight into what kind of worlds orbit other suns; how the stars in nearby galaxies differ from those in the solar system; and provide clues about the scale and age of the universe.It is also hoped that the telescope will inspire schoolchildren to study science.”We have to have a scientifically literate work force if we are to make the advances we so desperately need,” said Phil Charles, director of the telescope project.The project was initiated five years ago and was funded mainly by South Africa, in partnership with universities in the United States, Britain, Germany, New Zealand and Poland, which will be able to share the fruits of the research via the Internet.The telescope contains a powerful primary mirror, consisting of 91 hexagonal segments, which is 36 feet in diameter.The high-tech marvel sits on a hilltop near the small town of Sutherland, about four hours from Cape Town. The town is already home to South Africa’s existing research telescopes because its latitude, altitude and clear atmospheric conditions make it one of the best places in the world to observe the stars.—-On the Net:South African Large Telescope:, Colorado

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