South Africa Sets Sights on Biggest Southern Telescope

South African astronomers are making a pitch to build what would be the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. Officials of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and a U.S. delegation of astronomers will meet with South African government officials in Pretoria later this week to try to persuade the government to ante up $10 million, half the estimated cost of the proposed telescope.

If funding is secured, the new telescope would be modeled after the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), now under construction at the McDonald Observatory in western Texas. When ready for experiments in late 1997, the $13.5 million HET will have an 11-meter primary mirror, the largest in the world. SAAO officials had planned to build a telescope with a 4-meter mirror, but they were lured from that path by the relatively cheap price of an HET knock-off–at $20 million, a South African version of HET would run about a fifth of the cost of the comparably sized Keck telescope in Hawaii.

Together, HET and a South African twin could view about 90% of the entire sky, missing only some regions above the poles. The telescopes, tailored for spectroscopy, would be particularly well suited for searching for planets in far-flung galaxies and for studying distant quasars, says astronomer Donald Schneider of Pennsylvania State University, which is part of an HET coalition led by the University of Texas, Austin.

For South African astronomers, the proposal offers an opportunity to regain the supremacy of the southern skies they enjoyed about 30 years ago when they had the largest infrared telescope, says SAAO director Robert Stobie. Investing in an 11-meter dish “would give us a chance to leapfrog other nations in the Southern Hemisphere,” he says.

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