A star is born: South Africa’s advances in astronomy

Nelson Mandela, the ‘rainbow nation’ and vuvuzelas... South Africa is often painted as a country alive with culture, rich in mineral resources and steeped in history. What tourists don’t know is that the ‘cradle of mankind’ is leading the way in the exploration of the universe – astronomy.

Did you know that Table Mountain is the only geographical landmark on the planet that is represented by its own constellation? The Astronomical Society of South Africa tells us that the first astronomers arrived in the Cape of Good Hope by ship, and navigated by the stars. Since then South African astronomers have identified hundreds of comets, double stars and nebulas.

South Africa’s bid to build the biggest telescope on the planet

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be a “revolutionary radio telescope made of thousands of receptors linked together across an area the size of a continent”. In South Africa, the telescope will be based in the Karoo region of the Northern Cape, which has dark skies, a dry climate and small population and, importantly, very few radio frequencies such as cell phone signals and broadcast towers. “The total collecting area of all the receptors combined will be approximately one square kilometre, making the SKA the largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever built.” The SKA telescope will change what we know about our universe, and answer some important questions:

• How do galaxies evolve and what is dark energy?

• Are we alone in the universe?

• How were the first black holes and stars formed?

• What generates the giant magnetic fields in space?

• Was Einstein right about the theory of relativity?

South Africa hopes to present the answers to these questions to global astronomical community. Currently SA is battling Australia for the rights the host the SKA telescope, which will be announced in 2012. It will attract the top astronomers, scientists and engineers – and will be one of the biggest scientific research facilities in the world.

Star-gazing observatories in South Africa

South Africa has many observatories, which includes the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) which is headquartered in Cape Town and has an observation station in Sutherland in the Karoo, the South African Large Telescope (SALT) also in Sutherland, the Boyden Observatory just outside Bloemfontein which belongs to the University of the Free State, the Hartebeeshoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) outside Krugersdorp and the UNISA Observatory in Pretoria. There are also a number of private and amateur observatories, as well as two planetariums.

Johannesburg Planetarium

The Johannesburg Planetarium which opened in October 1960 was the first of its kind in Africa, and only the second planetarium ever built in the Southern Hemisphere. Beneath the dome is a Zeiss projector that originally belonged to the City Council of Hamburg. Today the planetarium is open to the public on most evenings, hosting shows such as the ‘In the Sky Tonight’ series, as well as children’s star parties and astronomy courses. The Johannesburg Planetarium is situated on the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand.


Iziko Planetarium

More modern than the facility in Johannesburg, the Iziko Planetarium in Cape Town has a Minolta Series IV star machine coupled with many projectors, transforming the inside of the auditorium into a dazzling universe of deep sky objects and celestial wonders each evening. The astronomers at the Iziko Planetarium have a special interest in African star lore. This is a good place to stop off and grab a star map of the Southern Hemisphere before heading out to the SALT telescope in Sutherland.