SALT - Physics and Astronomy - University of Canterbury - New Zealand


The University of Canterbury and SALT

What is SALT?

SALT stands for Southern African Large Telescope and will be the largest (with an effective diameter of more than 10.2m) single telescope at visible and infrared wavelengths in the world when construction is completed in 2005. Ground-breaking for the telescope facility, at an excellent astronomical site in South Africa, was on September 1, 2000 and the dedication ceremony on November 11, 2005. The telescope is the second of its kind in the world, closely following the prototype, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, which is operating in Texas.

As the name implies, this telescope is a flagship science and engineering project for Southern Africa, as much as for South Africa, and this is a key point which has been stressed by the principal proponents of this project, particularly the President of the National Research Foundation in South Africa, Professor Khotso Mokhele. They are using this project as a focus for many activities throughout their region, but particularly to attract young people into the sciences and engineering, so that they can develop the skills of their huge human capital.

Who is involved in the project?

SALT is a partnership between the South African Government (as principal shareholders) and other institutions: the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rutgers University (New Jersey), Cargenie Mellon University (Pittsburgh), Dartmouth College (New Hampshire), the University of North Carolina, The Hobby-Eberly Telescope Board (comprising the University of Texas at Austin, Penn State University, Stanford University and two universities in Germany), the Polish astronomical community through the Nicolas Copernicus Astronomical Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Göttingen University in Germany, a consortium of United Kingdom universities, and of course the University of Canterbury.

What are the science and engineering opportunities for the University of Canterbury (and New Zealand)?

The University of Canterbury's bid to join this project was a combination of cash and 'in-kind' contributions. The total will give us an ~4% share of the available telescope time. (Observers will not go to South Africa to observe on this telescope, but after their research proposal has been accepted the observation (or series of observations) will be acquired and then retrieved via the internet.) The 'in-kind' contribution will be the construction of a state-of-the-art instrument (a spectrograph) to take the light collected by the telescope and break it up into a spectrum, for the analysis of stars, nebulae, galaxies and other celestial objects. The SALT partnership has recognised the skills and expertise that are available in New Zealand (and centred at Canterbury) which will enable this instrument to be built. This instrument will join at least one other very different spectrograph, which will be constructed by other members of the SALT consortium. Because of the nature of the partnership all instruments will be available to all partners and so there is immediate added value to Canterbury by joining this project. For a relatively modest investment, we will get access to the largest telescope in the world and instrumentation at the very cutting edge.

The research possibilities for students and staff are enormous, with the ability to image and analyse the faintest objects currently visible in the Universe. And with the instrument that we will be constructing, we will be able to use some of our existing expertise to search for extra solar planets, determine the composition of stars in distant galaxies and measure the scale of the Universe using objects for which we have be en analysing their local counterparts. And the collaboration opportunities, particularly for graduate and also senior undergraduate students, will be significant with visits from our overseas partners. In addition, Canterbury students and staff will get access to a range of other telescopes (up to 1.9m in diameter), which will be able to be linked to observations obtained at our observatory at Mt John.

The interest in joining SALT commenced in 1997, when the project was first proposed in South Africa. Since that time there was a New Zealand astronomical consortium, from Auckland, Victoria and Canterbury universities, which sought funds from a variety of sources, including Canterbury's New Initiative (in 1999 and 2000), Auckland's Infrastructure Fund, the Marsden Fund, as well as representations to Government ministries and foundations. The first commitment to this quest came from the University of Canterbury Research Committee in 1999. This enabled a (favourable) feasibility study, to determine New Zealand's capability to construct the above instrument, to be undertaken. Subsequently, in May 2000 the SALT consortium accepted Canterbury's cash plus "in-kind" proposal. We are still endeavouring to encourage Auckland and Victoria to join this project, which would reduce Canterbury's commitment.

What are the costs?

As indicated previously this is a combination offer and all payments for the telescope and instrument construction phase will be spread over up to 7 years. The cash was by way of 5 payments of $US100,000 per year. The 'in-kind' contribution will require some cash to be expended, mainly in New Zealand, but will also include the salaries and overheads of a number of existing personnel in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. The on-going costs will be $US60,000 per year for 10 years, commencing in 2004 and will be recovered, given the nature of the research projects that will be proposed, from Department funds and other research grant funding, particularly from the Marsden Fund.

What are the other benefits for the University of Canterbury?

This high profile project will showcase Canterbury throughout the world. Indeed it has already done so (articles in Nature, Physics Today) and it will provide opportunities for students and staff in all disciplines to use this focus to highlight their particular field, particularly in the new South Africa.

More information about the SALT project can be found at:

  • Department of Physics and Astronomy
    University of Canterbury,
    Private Bag 4800,
    Christchurch 8140,
    New Zealand.
    Phone: +64 3 364 2523
    Fax: +64 3 364 2469
  • Follow us
    FacebookYoutubetwitterLinked In