Universality of Circular Polarization in Star- and Planet-forming Regions: Implications for the Origin of Homochirality of Life

A  research team headed by Jungmi Kwon, has carried out deep imaging linear and circular polarimetry of the ‘Cat’s  paw Nebula’ (NGC 6334) located in the constellation Scorpius.  Their results indicate levels of circular polarization (CP) as high as 22% in NGC 6334 which is the highest level of CP ever observed.

The team has also carried out the first systematic survey of both linear and circular polarimetry in nine star- and planet-forming regions. Their results from the various star-forming regions show the presence of CP in all of these regions. These results are assumed to indicate that CP is a universal feature of star- and planet-forming regions.

The processes involved in star and planet formation and the origin of life are neither clear nor generally agreed upon and Jungmi Kwon’s team, from GUAS, NAOJ, and JSPS, are working on these problems. The team used the IRSF 1.4 m telescope with SIRPOL imaging
polarimeter at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Sutherland. The telescope and instrument are operated by Nagoya University, Kyoto University, and NAOJ. SIRPOL is an instrument developed by the group that enables them to simultaneously obtain information about both circularly polarized and linearly polarized light. It also enables wide-field imaging polarimetry (~ 8 x 8 arcmin square = ~ 1/4 diameter of the Moon), of a considerably wider field than other instruments. The IRSF/SIRPOL combination has one of the highest performances at present available for detecting polarized light (either linear and/or circular) in the near-infrared over a wide field of view.

Life on Earth makes extensive (almost exclusive) use of “left-handed amino acids (L-amino acids)”. The question of why organisms on Earth preferentially utilize L-amino acids instead of D-amino acids or D-sugars instead of L-sugars is as yet unresolved. The effort to solve this problem is of paramount importance if the outstanding issues surrounding the origin of Life are to be resolved. The knowledge that CP, which is known to influence molecular chirality, occurs much more widely than previously suspected in star-forming regions, could be an important part of the missing information required to satisfactorily explain the origin of Life.

Research Telescopes at SAAO

This is a list from way back in 2003 but the links are all current and provide a lot of interesting information about the SAAO, the telescopes and other scientific activities in Sutherland.

SALT – Southern African Large Telescope

Telescopes for use by visiting observers

1.9-m (Radcliffe) Telescope
1.0-m (Elizabeth) Telescope
0.75-m Telescope
0.5-m Telescope
IRSF – Infrared Survey Facility, a joint Japanese/South African project

Other Research Telescopes

ACT – Alan Cousins Telescope, an automatic photometric telescope.

BiSON – Birmingham Solar Oscillations Network Sutherland station. A cooperative programme between SAAO and Birmingham University, UK. This is one of six networked solar telescopes spread around the world which studies the 5-minute oscillations of the Sun.

KELT-South is a small scientific telescope that is designed to detect transiting extrasolar planets.

LCOGT is a private operating foundation, building a global network of telescopes for professional research and citizen investigations. Sutherland is the location of three 1-metre telescopes and three Aqawans. View the LCOGT webcam at Sutherland.

MONET is a MOnitoring NEtwork of Telescopes; initiated and coordinated by the University of Gottingen (Germany). The Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation has awarded scientists at the University of Gottingen’s Observatory up to 1,3 million Euros for the construction of two internet-operated telescopes with 1.2-m mirror diameters (f/7). The two fully automatic robotic telescopes will be located at the observatory sites of partner institutions in Texas and South Africa.

Solaris is a Polish scientific initiative to open a new frontier in the hunt for extrasolar planets. Solaris-1 and Solaris-2 is part of a global network of four 0.5-m robotic telescopes.

SuperWasp – South is the Wide Angle Search for Planets coordinated by Keele University’s Astrophysics Group.

YSTAR – Yonsei Survey Telescopes for Astronomical Research Sutherland Station. A cooperation between SAAO and Yonsei University, Korea, to host a station in an international Korean-led effort to monitor variable stars and other transient events.

SAAO Telescopes in the SALT era

Proceedings of the Workshop at SAAO on the 23rd of April 2003 (PDF)

Recommendations by the Committee (PDF)


South African Geodynamic Observatory Sutherland (SAGOS)

The GeoForschungsZentrum, Potsdam in cooperation with the National Research Foundation of South Africa constructed the SAGOS between 1998 and 2000. SAGOS consist of a 1 Hz permanent GPS station, a superconducting gravimeter, meteorological sensors, and a tri-axial magnetometer. The GPS station is also used in support of the CHAllenging Minisatellite Payload (CHAMP) and Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) space missions.

SUR Station

The SUR station forms part of the International Deployment of Accelerometers Project and the Global Seismographic Network of the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology

Deep-Sky April 2013 at Bergwater Lodge

Lynnette and I had planned to leave early on the Wednesday, but the best laid plans of mice, men and the Fosters often go astray and this was to be no exception.  While taking our new kitten, Snorre, out to the Vito Jaco’s cat, Muggie, came strolling over quite innocently. Snorre took one look at her and threw a fit. He turned into a biting, clawing, screaming, woolly demon with his teeth clamped very firmly onto the end of my right index finger.  Muggie very sensibly disappeared under the Vito and I headed back into the house where I managed to calm Snorre, retrieve my finger and take stock of the damage.  Four neat puncture marks, all bleeding quite profusely, one through the centre of the nail, one through the side of the nail and two in the fleshy underside of the fingertip. Lots of water, some disinfectant and a Band-Aid later and we ventured out to attempt a second departure, this time making sure that neither Muggie or any of the other neighbourhood cats were around.

Snorre, not attached to my finger any more

The journey to Bergwater Lodge was uneventful, except for the quick stop at the Vet’s in Montagu to get Snorre his first round of inoculations and a deworming treatment. At Bergwater we unpacked and settled in.  Auke arrived on Thursday and the rest of the pack trickled in during the course of Friday, except for Iain who only arrived on Saturday morning. On Friday Auke dished out the set of special ConCards he had prepared for the weekend.



The Old Man of the mountain in morning light
The Old Man of the mountain in evening light
It appears the Old Man of the mountain is part of an Easter Island head’s outline







The weather on Friday night at Bergwater was perfect for observing and our first task was to try and see the illusive Sirius B as soon as Sirius appeared after sunset, but none of us had any luck.  Auke had also, as a homework assignment earlier in the week, asked us to determine the field of view for our binoculars and eyepieces as well as our eyepiece-Barlow combinations.  Because of the overcast conditions in Cape Town, this had not been done so, after Sirius, we all got stuck in using the special charts Auke had prepared.  At first we concentrated on Orion and, when Orion set, those of us who were still trying to complete the homework, switched to Crux. The more industrious members of the group got stuck into finding and sketching our Deep-Sky objects.

The crescent moon in an ESCOM frame

On Saturday morning we had the opportunity to check the fields of view we had determined the previous evening and all the odd looking values were marked for checking that night.  While the members who had brought their families along set of for Montagu and a day at the mineral baths, the rest of us spent the day either discussing astronomical and astrophotographic matters or finishing of the rough sketches we had made the previous evening.

On Saturday evening we had another go at spotting Sirius-B, but without any luck. Then it was an all-out search for the many illusive Deep-Sky objects on the list.  Round about midnight Auke started a round of interrogation. He’d point his laser at a spot in the sky and want to know things like what object was there, what was noteworthy about the object and which constellation was it in.  Or he would point out a spot and announce that there was a galaxy there and which one was it.  This exercise very quickly sorted those that knew from those that didn’t. Eventually we did get some sleep although I am told some diehards actually sat it out until 06:00 and consumed large amounts of coffee in the process.

The Chelyabinsk asteroid or the Pietersfontein dragon warming up?

Sunday morning was packing up and saying goodbye time for everyone except Auke, Lynnette, Snorre and myself.  Christine had asked us to conduct a stargazing session for a group of locals on the Sunday evening.  As the afternoon progressed the clouds rolled in and it looked less and less likely that we would be able to see any stars.  The aspiring local stargazers must have come to the same conclusion as none of them turned up, but by 20:00 it was cloudless and once the crescent moon had set, it was actually a very good observing night.  Did the three of us observe?  No, we spent the evening discussing future plans for the SSP, other Deep-Sky outings, outreach projects and the future of amateur astronomy in South Africa – serious stuff man, serious stuff!

We were up bright and early to have breakfast and see Auke off at about 08:00 on Monday and we eventually left shortly after 11:00.  Did we have a leisurely drive home?  No we did not, thank you!  About seven km from the farm and three km from the R318 there was a loud snap from the driver’s door of the Vito followed by a thump and a sudden rush of fresh air.  The cable of the window mechanism had snapped, dropping the glass pane down into the depths of the door where it could not be reached.  So we drove all the way back to Brackenfell with an open window fully exposed to the noise of passing vehicles as well as the continuous blast of air.

Fixing this lot cost R3500-00 because you cannot just replace the snapped cable or the faulty piece of plastic that caused it to snap.  No, you have to replace the whole shebang, metal framework, cable, sundry bits of plastic, miscellaneous wheels and cogs and an electric motor.