Thursday, September 07, 2017

Visiting Sutherland and the Southern African Astronomical Observatory

We would have liked to have gone to see the stars at night from SAAO at Sutherland, but driving 110 kilometres in the dark there and back from Matjiesfontein was not for us. Another time, we hope to stay in Sutherland and do that tour. The observatory is so high that it has the best view of the skies in South Africa and it is far away from any light pollution

We had booked to do the afternoon tour which costs only R65 and takes place each day. NB pre-booking on line is mandatory. Book online: tours.saao.ac.za. And do be punctual, they will not wait. It is a rather long drive of 110 kilometres, but well worth the trip. As you travel through this unforgiving landscape, you have to wonder about the people who traversed this land in the past. Those who travelled by foot or horse may have been courageous, but when it comes to getting wagons and oxen over these unrelenting valleys and mountains, one has to ask WHY!? Many of them did not know what was over the next rise or have maps. It was indeed a huge trek. Now you have a very good tarred road which dips and winds its way through the hilly landscape
Sutherland is a typical South African Karoo town, nestled in the valley, surrounded by hills and mountains
We stopped off at the grandly named Sutherland Mall and in Die Trommel and bought some presents
There are several tourist restaurants, but all of them closed for lunch on a Tuesday? Perhaps they just get visitors at the weekend. We had a good breakfast at the Lord Milner in Matjiesfontein, so could skip lunch
We also visited the best – and only - butcher in Sutherland and bought some very good lamp and beef. We travel with a small fridge in the car on long trips “just in case”. The hotel was happy to keep the meat in their fridge overnight and we left the next day. The price of lamb in the country is half that in Cape Town and Karoo lamb is legendary; the sheep feed on wild herbs as they graze
The Tourist Centre at SAAO. The observatories are 15 kilometres from Sutherland
Before we left in our cars for the observatories, our tour guide, Francois, took us through the exhibits at the centre; some are interactive
This is a model of the SALT telescope in the Tourist Centre
There are several different observatories, many are owned and run by other countries, often automatically and electronically. These are all optical observatories
The new South African part of the SKA radio telescope will be installed near Carnarvon. The SKA (Square Kilometre Array) project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, with a square kilometre (one million square metres) of collecting area. It will be co-located in Africa and in Australia. It will have an unprecedented scope in observations, exceeding the image resolution quality of the Hubble Space Telescope by a factor of 50 times, whilst also having the ability to image huge areas of sky in parallel

First, we visited the Elizabeth Telescope, named after Queen Elizabeth
This is the working "eye" of the telescope but, nowadays, the astronomer sits in a room close by and he operates the telescope by computer
This is its building
The window is open, so something is being studied


Next we went to view SALT
The wind was howling on the top of the mesa at up to 68 Km/h. They cannot operate if it is higher than 60, so they were hoping that it would drop by evening when the stars come out and everywhere is pitch dark
The Southern African Large Telescope SALT uses an array of 91 1-metre hexagonal metres with a maximum diameter of 11 metres. With a light-gathering surface of 77.6 square metres, SALT’s giant mirror array makes it the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, and one of the largest in the world. The construction phase was completed at the end of 2005 and, from 2006 to 2009, it entered a period of commissioning and performance verification. Since September 2011, observing is now in full swing and the telescope is finally realising its huge potential as Africa’s Giant Eye on the Universe
Onward and up into the Roggeberg Mountains, the air becomes fresher, cleaner and thinner. It is 1800 metres above sea level
A poem by South African Poet Jan Crafford in Afrikaans, seen in the SALT observatory
 Star Mountain
At Star Mountain, there at Sutherland
In the thin white air, from the high wind
They shall find the furthest stars
There above you, my old, Karoo
As we entered the observatory where the huge Salt telescope is sited, Lynne was lucky enough to see it being positioned for the night viewing. It is enormous; the whole room can rotate as can the huge hexagonal mirror, 11 metres across. It is actually made up of 91 individual 1m hexagonal mirrors
From below
It does look rather otherworldly
A distant mesa or kopje
The road down from SAAO
Trees planted to give shade or protection from the wind
Some sheep on the near ground and another kopje on our way back
A small water tank in the middle of the Karoo
A gazanea daisy struggling in the rough ground.
A typical Karoo road
SAAO from below
Back into Sutherland
A ram going to make some sheep happy and more Karoo lamb for us
On the road home, there are just a few farms
and this is a classic water pumping windmill. Water is scarce; they receive very little rain and farmers have to drill deep boreholes to fill their dams
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