Outreach & Guiding for a National Science and Technology Forum group (NSTF Brilliants) to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT): Friday 23rd to Monday 26th June 2017.

Anja Bruton, the Science Promotions Coordinator at SKA Africa, approached StarPeople to accompany the NSTF Brilliants group (http://www.nstf.org.za/youth/brilliants-programme/) on the tour to the SKA and SALT and we jumped at the opportunity. Anja and Dimpho would fly to Kimberly to meet up with Jansie Niehaus and Wilna Eksteen from the NSTF (http://www.nstf.org.za/) and a group of students, chosen for their exceptional performance in the 2016 Matriculation exams; specifically in the Science paper. This group would fly down from Gauteng and, after a day’s sightseeing in Kimberley, they would tackle the long journey to Carnarvon in two Quantums on Saturday the 24th. They would also be accompanied by two photographers who were tasked with documenting the trip.

Lynnette, Auke, Snorre and I would leave Cape Town for Carnarvon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnarvon,_Northern_Cape) early on Thursday the 23rd and book in at the Lord Carnarvon Guest House. Anja and the rest of the group were scheduled to arrive shortly after lunch on Saturday and on Saturday evening StarPeople were to present a stargazing session at Klerefontein, the SKA’s operational base about 15 km outside Carnarvon. On Sunday morning the group would visit the SKA site itself and after that, e would depart for Sutherland. On Sunday evening there was to be stargazing session at the SAAO’s Visitor’s Centre and on Monday morning we would tour the SAAO facilities on the hill before heading for Cape Town.

However, as Robert Burns once said “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” First of all, Auke had to pull out because of domestic complications. Then the car hire company notified us that the vehicle we required could only be delivered on Friday morning and not on Thursday afternoon as requested. This, of course, scuppered our 05:00 departure plan, but Lynnette and I made sure that we had everything packed and ready to load by 08:00 when the vehicle was scheduled to arrive. However, it only arrived at about 08:30 and, when it did arrive, it was petrol and not diesel driven as had been requested. Disaster! Petrol-driven vehicles are not allowed access to the SKA site because their spark plugs generate interference for the radio telescope. It is more than 600 km to Carnarvon and we had to be there before dark. We also still had to load the vehicle so, if we sent it back and insisted on a diesel driven one, there was no chance of reaching Carnarvon before dark. We signed for the vehicle, finished loading in record time and at 09:40 we set off for Carnarvon.

TOP: The hired Hyundai H1 with the StarPeople door magnets.  CENTRE: Entering Malmesbury.  BOTTOM: Passing Moorreesburg on the N7.

The journey was long but uneventful. We stopped for petrol and Lynnette’s packed lunch in Vanrhynsdorp (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanrhynsdorp) after 290 km. We then stopped halfway up the spectacular Vanrhyns Pass to take pictures. The original pass was constructed in 1880 by Thomas Bain and climbs almost 600 m from the Knersvlakte to its summit, situated at just over 800 m, which is about the same as the top of Du Toitskloof pass. The pass has an average gradient of 1:15 with the steepest section being 1:12.

TOP: Looking West from Piekenierskloof Pass toward the northern end of the Piketberg.  CENTRE: Citrusdal in the distance against the backdrop of the Cederberg with Cederberg Sneeukop just left of centre.  BOTTOM: The turn-off to Clanwilliam and this rebuilt section of the N7 is a pleasure to drive.
TOP: Stop and Go delay due to the reconstruction of the bridge across the Olifants River.  CENTRE: The light coloured patches on the hill in the background are called Heuweltjies and their origin is a much-debated topic. Go to any one of the following links to read up on them. (1. https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Heuweltjie) (2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heuweltjie#cite_note-7) (3. http://www.sajs.co.za/sites/default/files/publications/pdf/SAJS%20112_1-2_Cramer_Research%20Article.pdf) (4. https://www.infona.pl/resource/bwmeta1.element.elsevier-ab969e23-2c87-36b0-a144-1c5ed9ebd6af) BOTTOM: Vanrhynsdorp and the cliffs of the Matzikamma mountain range. Maskam lies at the eastern end while Gifberg is on the western edge. These mountains form the western boundary of the Great Escarpment.
TOP: Approaching the Knersvlakte on the R27 and in the distance the edge of the Great Escarpment.  2nd FROM TOP: Vanrhyns Pass which takes the R27 up to the top of the Great Escarpment is visible in the distance.  2nd FROM BOTTOM: The R27 begins the ascent of the pass.  BOTTOM: Up we go around one of the many fairly sharp bends in the road up the pass.

Shortly after Vanrhyns Pass, we passed the turnoff to the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve (here is a Wikipedia link http://www.footprint.co.za/oorlogskloof.htm ) with its spectacular glacial floor, but there was no time to visit that on this trip. The reserve is situated just west of Nieuwoudtville (http://www.nieuwoudtville.com/the-treasure/). Next was Calvinia the main town of the Hantam region (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calvinia) with its extra outsize red post-box and, 230 km after Vanrhynsdorp, we reached Williston (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Williston,_Northern_Cape), where we made a brief stop for another light snack and to answer a call of nature, before tackling the last 125 km to Carnarvon. Time constraints had prevented us from visiting the Langbaken cheese farm (http://karoospace.co.za/cheesemakers-upper-karoo/) south of Williston, but we will save that for another day.

TOP: View back over the Knersvlakte toward the West Coast and the distant South Atlantic Ocean.  2nd FROM TOP: View southeast past a mass of protruding sandstone in the direction of the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve.  2nd FROM BOTTOM: Steep cliffs of Table Mountain sandstone group rise above the road.  BOTTOM: A very large red flower post-box in Calvinia.
TOP: The R63 stretches out ahead of us as we approach Williston.  2nd FROM TOP: The shadow of the Earth and the pink layer of the Venus Girdle over Carnarvon as we approach on the R63.  2nd FROM BOTTOM: Entering the outskirts of Carnarvon.  BOTTOM: Our destination the Lord Carnarvon Guest House in Carnarvon.

On the last stretch, we had to push it a bit and reached Carnarvon in the gathering dusk at 17:45, where we reported to Pieter Hoffman at the Lord Carnarvon guest house in Daniel Street (https://www.carnarvon.co.za/lcindex.htm). This building was the Officer’s Mess during the Anglo-South African War and he has done a magnificent job of restoring it. We unloaded, got Snorre settled in, and walked round to Lord’s Kitchen in Victoria Street (https://www.tripadvisor.co.za/Restaurant_Review-g4226745-d8743616-Reviews-Lord_s-Carnarvon_Northern_Cape.html), also run by Pieter, for supper. After supper, we walked back to the Lord Carnarvon and had the amusing experience of being escorted by a police vehicle because “nobody walks around Carnarvon in the dark”.  This remark struck us a rather odd considering the fact that there were quite a few other local people in the streets.

TOP: Our very well appointed accommodation in the Lord Carnarvon Guest House.  2nd FROM TOP: Snorre making himself at home on his red blanket which we always put over the bed wherever we stay. Although he never, or hardly ever, sleeps on our bed at home, he doesn’t miss the opportunity to do so when we are away from home.  2nd FROM BOTTOM: Interior of the front section in Lord’s Kitchen.  BOTTOM: Outside view of our room in the guest house.

On Saturday morning, after breakfast at the Lord Carnarvon, Lynnette, Snorre and I took to the streets to do some house hunting in case we should decide to move to Carnarvon. The results of this expedition were rather disappointing as we soon discovered that, like many small country towns in South Africa, the homeowners wanted lots of cash for the property that was, in our opinion, worth a lot less. The other aspect which surprised us, even though Anja had warned us about it, was the negative sentiment toward the SKA project and the amount of disinformation circulating in the town. This varied from stories that farmers were being chased off their farms without compensation or that farms were being confiscated in order to distribute the land to previously disadvantaged persons, and even that townsfolk were to be evicted so that four blocks of houses could be knocked down to build a college. We also came across an openly hostile sign in a back yard in Kidd Street. Most obvious was the fact that almost everyone we spoke to had no bloody clue what the SKA was, or what it was about.

TOP: Snorre enjoying our slow exploration of Carnarvon.  2nd FROM TOP: Some locals on the outskirts of Carnarvon.  2nd FROM BOTTOM: Victoria Street and Lord’s Kitchen with the Adjacent Lord Carnarvon Hotel.  BOTTOM: Sign in the back yard of a house in Kidd Street which we found to be indicative of the attitude of many Carnarvon residents we spoke to.

Shortly before 16:00 Anja let us know they had arrived and were having a late lunch at Lord’s Kitchen. We popped around and Anja introduced us to the group. After the meal the group dispersed to their various rooms and Anja, Dimpho, Lynnette and I set off for Klerefontein, the SKA’s operational base, to set up Lorenzo for the stargazing later that evening. Mission accomplished we headed back to town to collect all our warm gear and have supper. After supper, the five vehicle cavalcade made its way back to Klerefontein. On a hill southeast of where we were situated was the large 7,6 m dish of the C-BASS radio telescope (https://www.ska.ac.za/science-engineering/c-bass/) catching the last rays of the setting sun as it patiently toiled away sweeping back and forth to map the radio sky in the 4,5-5,5 MHz frequency range. The C-BASS dish, recently moved from Hartebeeshoek (http://www.hartrao.ac.za/) to Klerefontein, is the southern component (the other telescope is in California) of a project to produce a microwave (short-wavelength radio) radiation map similar to the one produced by the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_(spacecraft)), but at longer wavelengths than Planck. C-BASS will also measure the polarization of the radiation.

Anja split the students into two groups for the planned activities. One group stayed with Lynnette, Lorenzo and I to do some stargazing. The other group went inside to participate in Skype Q&A session with Jim Adams, Deputy Chief Technologist at NASA (https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/people/adamsj).The Milky Way was magnificent and drew many Ooh’s and Aah’s from the group. I did a basic what’s-up-tonight and then kept talking while Lynnette operated Lorenzo. There was no Moon but fortunately, Jupiter and Saturn were nicely placed and we could also show them a selection of the other well-known objects. After about an hour the groups changed around and Lynnette, Lorenzo and I repeated our earlier performance. Once we had done with the second group, it was packing up time and then back to town for a hot shower and some much-needed sleep.

Sunday morning at 06:15 it was breakfast time at Lord’s Kitchen and, after collecting our packed lunches, it was all aboard for the trip out to Klerefontein where Anja gave us a Health and Safety briefing and had us all fill in indemnity forms. During the briefing, the emphasis was placed on the mayhem electronic devices caused for the radio telescopes. Mobile phones, which all had to be switched off, were a prime source and even my hearing aid’s hands-free device, that uses Blue Tooth, had to be switched off. After all, this had been sorted out, our motorcade tackled the more than 70 or so kilometers out to the actual SKA site. Large sections have already been tarred, but there are still fairly long sections that are very rough and dusty. Lynnette and I had to leave our petrol driven vehicle with Snorre in it just inside the checkpoint at what used to be the Meysdam farmhouse and continue with Anja and Dimpho in their vehicle. Snorre was quite safe, with enough fresh air, water and food to keep him busy till we get back. We made sure that the vehicle would be in the deep shade while we were away too.

TOP LEFT: Coffee was clearly a priority for most of the group.  TOP RIGHT: They came in by drips and drabs.  BOTTOM LEFT: André, one of the drivers, looking most inquisitive.  BOTTOM RIGHT: Leftovers tell the tale of what was popular and what wasn’t.
TOP: A quiet Victoria Street at 07:20.  CENTRE: Entering Klerefontein with the C-BASS dish on the hill in the distance.  BOTTOM: A dusty section of the road out to the SKA site.

Our first stop was the very impressive, half underground, Karoo Array Processor Building. Placing the centre below ground level was essential to minimize the amount of interference from the computers. In addition to being below ground level, the whole installation is housed inside a huge Faraday cage (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faraday_cage). It is ironic that a radio telescope, which cannot function without massive computer support, also experiences its most annoying interference from computers. It was while touring the Processor Building point that I realized that, if I had simply put my phone on Airplane Mode, I could have brought it with me and taken photographs. Some mothers are just unfortunate to have very dense children! Our next stop was the huge, hanger-sized building where the MeerKAT dishes are assembled. It is only when one stands next to one of these huge constructions lying flat on the floor that one really gets an idea of their overwhelming size. Needless to say, at this point, I mentally administered several more resounding kicks to my posterior for not having anything to take pictures with. After completing this part of the tour it was back into the vehicles for the drive out to the telescopes.

The first stop was the KAT-7 dishes (http://www.ska.ac.za/) where all but one pointed south, collecting data on some unseen object light years away in a distant part of the Universe. KAT-7 was a precursor engineering test bed for the larger MeerKAT array and also served as a demonstration of South Africa’s technological ability when the bid for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) was submitted. However, KAT-7, the first radio telescope ever to be built with a dish consisting of composite material, is also a science instrument in its own right. Each 12-meter dish is fitted with a prime focus receiver and a Stirling pump cooling unit that supplies the cryogenic cooling to keep the electronics at 75 K. The total collecting area of the seven dishes is about 2000 m2 and they function in the 3 to 30 cm wavelength range at frequencies between 1 200 and 1 950 MHz. KAT-7’s minimum baseline (shortest distance between two dishes) is 26 m and the maximum baseline (longest distance between two dishes) is 185 m. These seven dishes will eventually be decommissioned as science instruments when their successors, the MeerKat Array, comes online and be made available for serious amateurs.

Then we were off to find a MeerKAT dish (http://www.ska.ac.za/) that was positioned in such a way that it would be easy to photograph, which wasn’t easy because, despite the fact that they were lots of them, they were all facing in different directions. It really is an impressive sight, seeing these dishes scattered across the Karoo veldt against the backdrop of the low, dolerite topped hills that surround the area, with the dolerite providing a natural radio screen for the telescopes. Considering that only half of the MeerKAT dishes have been erected so far, one can only imagine what a spectacle it will be when all 64 MeerKAT dishes have been completed. The final Karoo Array Telescope or KAT will definitely be a must-see destination and a breathtaking spectacle for all who visit it. MeerKAT will eventually form the core of the KAT radio telescope array. These 13,5m dishes differ from those of KAT-7 in that they use an offset Gregorian configuration for the placing of the secondary dish and the receivers. Each dish is equipped with three receivers; 0,58 – 1,015 GHz, 1 – 1,75 GHz and 8 – 14,5 GHz. The MeerKAT minimum baseline is 29 m and the maximum baseline is 8 km.

Both KAT-7 and MeerKAT are entirely South African conceived, funded and built enterprises and, even after the construction of the KAT, which has multiple international partners, these two installations will remain entirely South African.

Our next stop was the Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA) (http://www.ska.ac.za/) which is the simplest construction imaginable and is the successor to the Precision Array for Probing the Epoch of Reionization (PAPER). PAPER has 128 antennae situated at the SKA site and 32 antennae situated in West Virginia in the USA. HERA is an American, British and South African collaboration that will eventually have 331 antennae of 14 m each at the SKA site. The existing PAPER installation will be moved to a location slightly west of the HERA installation and eventually decommissioned when HERA is fully operational. Whereas KAT-7, MeerKAT, and KAT are multipurpose installations HERA has only one fixed goal; it is going to probe back into time to try and find that moment when the very first stars switched on to light up in the Universe. In the process, it will produce a three-dimensional map of the universe during that specific period using radio waves in the 100-200 MHz frequency range. This project is the radio astronomy equivalent of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), and when they succeed, this project could very well be in line for a Nobel Prize. The antennae are fixed in one position, pointing straight up at the sky and have no moving parts, which greatly reduces the cost of the installation. What makes this project remarkable is that it is constructed with materials bought off the shelf in a local hardware store by people from the local community of Carnarvon who have been trained by SKA scientists. The big dishes of KAT-7 and the even bigger dishes of MeerKAT look like science instruments. HERA, however, looks like an inverted chicken coop or perhaps some sort of landscape art and not very scientific at all.

We went back to the Processor Building to enjoy our packed lunches and, while there Lynnette noticed that one of the Quantums had a flat tyre, necessitating a wheel change. After lunch, Anja and Dimpho dropped Lynnette and I off at Meysdam to pick up our vehicle and then we all traipsed back to Klerefontein where Anja and Dimpho changed vehicles before we all drove back to Carnarvon to refuel. Lynnette and I had done that the previous evening so we just hung around until the whole convoy was ready to start the long journey to Sutherland, which Anja had elected to do via Loxton (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loxton,_Northern_Cape). The just under 70 km from Carnarvon to Loxton was a breeze on a nice tarred road but then came the long 100 km grind on the R356 gravel road to Fraserburg (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fraserburg). We had been contemplating a visit to the palaeosurface at Gansefontein, just outside Fraserburg, but time was against as; seriously against us. We had hardly left Fraserburg when the sun set and, as it got darker, driving became more and more difficult. The 110 km stretch to Sutherland (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sutherland,_Northern_Cape) was going to take much, much longer than planned and our stargazing appointment at the SAAO site (http://www.saao.ac.za/about/visting/sutherland/) outside Sutherland had to be canceled. Because Lynnette and I were the last car in the convoy, we collected all the dust from the four vehicles ahead of us. This forced us to fall back more than a kilometer behind the fourth vehicle before we had a clear view of the road ahead.

We all made it safely to Sutherland and, while the majority of the group was booking into the Sutherland Hotel (http://www.sutherlandhotel.co.za/accommodation.php), Lynnette, Snorre, Anja and I as well as the two drivers of the Quantums, booked into Kambro Kind Guest House, where we were welcomed by Juanita Hutchings. Once booked in we went back to the Hotel where we had a typical Karoo supper consisting of meat, meat and more meat with a few vegetables right at the end of the buffet table.  It is just a pity that the hotel did not think of having a nice fire going in the dining area on such a cold evening.

After supper Lynnette and I, Lorenzo, Anja, the photographers and several students drove out to Middelfontein to do some stargazing (http://www.roomsforafrica.com/establishment.do?id=13879&gclid=Cj0KCQjws-LKBRDCARIsAAOTNd6cUH9fdKlh5bbYksnV0F5D-BQPK4kMRrO8IdxP7D_a6uSOZX_UQX8aAoUUEALw_wcB). The photographers were spending the night on Middelfontein, but the rest of us would have to drive back to town to get some sleep. The right side sliding door on our vehicle, which had been playing up since the previous day went on strike when we started unloading. It first refused to open and then, when we forced it to open, it refused to shut without the use of considerable force and, once shut, it refused to open again so we left it shut. Then the courtesy light inside the door which was supposed to only go on when the door was open, decided it wanted to be on even when the door was shut. A resounding thump on the outside of the door convinced the light to go off and stay off. Once that was sorted out we could get round to the stargazing which was a presented in the same format as on Saturday evening at Klerefontein and, once again, worked very well. So well, in fact, that Anja had to chase us all off to bed around midnight.

On Monday morning Lynnette and I packed up before breakfast and, true to Sutherland’s reputation of being very cold, the windscreen of our vehicle was thickly frosted over and the fishpond had a layer of ice over it, thick enough to walk on. After breakfast at Kambro Kind, everyone gathered at the Hotel before departing for the SAAO site where the group spent some time examining the displays in the Visitor’s Centre before Anthony Mitas took us under his very capable wing and shepherded us up the hill to start our tour at the Southern African Large Telescope or SALT (http://www.saao.ac.za/science/facilities/telescopes/salt/). SALT is an international collaboration between South Africa and several overseas partners and is operated as a separate research entity on the SAO site.

TOP LEFT: In Sutherland, you can stand on your fishpond – sometimes.  CENTRE LEFT: The group gets kinky necks as Anthony points up.  BOTTOM LEFT: The SALT mirror.  RIGHT: A section of the beautiful quilt in the foyer of the Visitor’s Centre.
LEFT: SALT all the way to the dome.  RIGHT: SALT against the backdrop of the blue Karoo sky and some wispy clouds.

Anthony presented a most comprehensive and informative talk to the group and, to everyone’s delight, arranged to have the 32-ton behemoth raised on its air cushions and rotated for us. After SALT we went to the 1,9-meter telescope. This is the second largest optical telescope in South Africa and, as the Radcliffe Telescope, it used to be housed in Pretoria but uncontrolled light pollution chased it south in the mid-1970’s (http://assa.saao.ac.za/sections/history/observatories/radcliffe_obs/). It has since acquired new instrumentation designed and built by SAAO-staff and still has many years of valuable scientific life ahead of it. At the telescope, we were met by Dr. Potter, a senior astronomer on the SAAO staff. Dr. Potter talked most informatively about the telescope and his own work as well as the other projects being conducted on the telescope. He also demonstrated how easy it was to operate the telescope, especially after the installation of modern electronic control systems, and showed the group around the control room as well.

After saying goodbye to Dr. Potter and Anthony, we stopped off in Sutherland to refuel and then made a beeline for Cape Town where the group had an 18:00 appointment at the SAAO headquarters in Observatory. We made one stop at the Veldskoen Farm Stall and said our final goodbyes before splitting up.

TOP: Salpeterkop the extinct 65 million-year-old volcano. The container on the left is the Property of the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) and was recently opened along with the German Aerospace Centre’s dome (DLR) (http://www.sansa.org.za/spacescience/resource-centre/news/1622-another-eye-towards-the-sky-unveiling-south-africa-s-optical-space-research-laboratory?platform=hootsuite). The white pillar on the right used to carry a German site testing telescope – I think! CENTRE: A very bored traveling cat called Snorre.  BOTTOM: Descending the Hex Pass.

My only regret is that with the group split over several vehicles it was impossible to do any guiding while en route. Although we considered stopping the vehicles at points of interest, it would not have been practical from a safety point of view. Time constraints, which played an important role during the trip, virtually canceled the possibility of additional stops even if safety had not been an important consideration.

TOP: A scene north of the R27 as one approaches Calvinia.  2nd FROM TOP: Those five crumbed mushrooms were quite good, but they cost R9 each at Lord’s Kitchen!.  2nd FROM BOTTOM: The two crumbed pork chops served by Lord’s kitchen were probably the largest I have ever been served in a restaurant and they were also probably the most tender and juicy ones too..  BOTTOM: It’s a good thing we didn’t stay too much longer in SALT or there would have been some very stiff necks the next day.

I will post more photos at a later stage as they become available from other people who were on the trip as well as the two official photographers.

Southern African Astronomical Observatory Telescopes hit the Road: February 2015

The 0.5m and 0.75m telescopes will soon be leaving Sutherland for Durban (University of KwaZulu Natal) and Boyden (University of Free State) respectively.

The 0.5m was constructed by Boller & Chivens of Pasadena, California, for the Republic Observatory in Johannesburg at the end of 1968. Boller & Chivens collaborated with Perkin-Elmer during the 1950’s to develop and manufacture the Baker-Nunn satellite tracking camera for the United States Vanguard satellite tracking program. Eventually, the company was taken over by Perkin-Elmer in 1965. The telescope’s main function at the Republic Observatory was photometry and planetary photography and was, in fact, the only telescope ready for use in June 1972 at the new Southern African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) location in Sutherland. Initially, it was used with the Texas designed UCT high-speed photometer connected to a Nova minicomputer with software by R.E. Nather. Later the “People’s Photometer”, designed by Richard Bingham and built at the Greenwich Observatory, became the main instrument deployed with this telescope. A considerable number of publications about rapid variables such as dwarf novae originated from data produced by the 0.5m telescope.

The mounting of the 0.75m was originally located at the SAAO site in Cape Town. Its old home is currently the IT building. While there, from 1964 onward, it was officially known as the Multiple Refractor Mount (MRM) because it carried three refractors and the largest of the three produced around 7000 photographic plates between 1964 and 1970. These plates were part of the extensive Southern Reference Star Programme. The 0.75m telescope itself was a reflector telescope and was specially built for installation in Sutherland by Grubb Parsons of Newcastle upon Tyne, England, in 1974. Grubb Parsons was officially Sir Howard Grubb, Parsons and Co. Ltd. The company was originally founded in Dublin by Thomas Grubb as the Grubb Telescope Company in 1833. He was joined by his son Howard in 1864. In 1925 Sir Charles Parsons bought the company and renamed it. The company had an illustrious career as a builder of formidable telescopes until it ceased to trade in 1985. A list is provided at the end of this post. The 0.75m telescope also had an impressive career at Sutherland where it was used for many important infrared and visible light studies of stars, including the supernova that exploded in 1987 in one of our neighbouring galaxies, the Large Magellanic Cloud.

According to Dr. Ramotholo Sefako, head of Telescope Operations at the SAAO says the domes of the 0.5m and 0.75m telescopes will be modified after the telescopes have been moved. Both domes will eventually house new robotic telescopes. One of these telescopes is the 0.65m MeerLICHT that will be used to simultaneously observe the same part of the sky at night as the MeerKAT radio telescope outside Carnarvon. It will provide a real-time optical view of the radio transient sky as observed on MeerKAT. MeerLICHT is jointly owned by the University of Cape Town, SAAO, the Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NOW), and University of Oxford. The second dome will house the new SAAO 1.0m wide-field telescope with modern instrumentation. Currently, none of the SAAO telescopes have a wide field so this creates a new dimension in the SAAO’s research capabilities. This telescope will be installed late in 2015 or early in 2016.

You can visit the SAAO site to see pictures and read more about this exciting development if you go here.

Some telescopes produced by the Grubb Telescope Company and Grubb Parsons of Newcastle upon Tyne.
The “Great Melbourne Telescope” – a 48-inch-diameter (122cm) reflecting telescope with a speculum primary mirror (1868).
The 27-inch (68cm) refractor for the Vienna Observatory (1878).
The 10-inch (25cm) refractor at Armagh Observatory (1882).
Seven 13 inch (33cm) refracting telescopes for the Carte du Ciel international photographic star catalogue project (1887).
The 28-inch (71cm) refractor at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (1893).
The 10-inch (25cm) refractor at Coats Observatory, Paisley (1898).
After 1925 they built the optical components for the Anglo-Australian Telescope, the UK Infrared Telescope, the Isaac Newton Telescope and the William Herschel Telescope.

Astronomy for the Visually Impaired

Visit to the Durr Family in Malmesbury,10 May 2014

In Die Burger of 21 April 2014 an article by Blanche de Vries titled “Seun met swak sig maak deurbraak” (Eng. Boy with poor sight makes a breakthrough) caught Lynnette’s eye and she filed it with the intention that we would try and include Pieter-Jans Durr in our outreach plans for 2014. Lady Luck was on our side because in the meantime, Dr Wanda Diaz-Merced, the blind astrophysicist from Puerto Rico, paid South Africa a visit, and was based at the International Astronomical Union’s Office for Development on the premises of the Southern African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Observatory, Cape Town.

We mentioned Pieter-Jans to Wanda on Friday during discussions following her farewell lunch at the SAAO, and she expressed interest in meeting Pieter-Jans.  So when we arrived home, Lynnette set about contacting the Durr Family. There were five numbers listed for the surname Durr, but the very first number she tried turned out to be the jackpot: it was Pieter-Jans’s grandmother.  Wanda was due to address a combined parents and teachers meeting on Saturday morning at the Athlone School for the Blind in Bellville South but she would be finished by 10:30 or shortly afterward.  We picked her up shortly after 11:00 and headed for Malmesbury. It rained intermittently on the way to Malmesbury, but we arrived on time at the Durr residence where we were warmly welcomed by Mrs Marie Durr, Pieter-Jans’s mother.

While we waited for Pieter-Jans, Marie filled us in on the family background. Pieter-Jans is the youngest of four children and he and his two older sisters all suffer from retinitis pigmentosa, generally abbreviated to RP.  His eldest sister attended the Pioneer School in Worcester before transferring back to a mainstream school in Malmesbury to complete her high schooling.  She then went on to complete a BA (Law) degree at the University of Stellenbosch. The second daughter matriculated at the Pioneer School in Worcester earning a place amongst the top ten in the Western Province. She is currently working on a master’s degree in Psychology at the University of Stellenbosch.  Pieter-Jans’s brother has no visual impediment.  He is a very capable Rugby player and is currently completing a degree in Physiotherapy at the University of Stellenbosch. Pieter-Jans himself was until recently a pupil at the Pioneer School in Worcester, but in 2014 he had expressed the wish transfer to the Swartland High School in his hometown, Malmesbury.  By the time Wanda had related her background to Marie and we had finished the coffee and melktert, Pieter-Jans arrived.

Pieter-Jans admitted to knowing very little about astronomy, an omission which Wanda soon set about correcting with the aid of the posters from the “Touch the Invisible Sky” and “From the Earth to the Sky” series.  She also presented him with the material she had brought along specifically to give to him.  Wanda soon had Pieter-Jans completely at his ease, and before long they were engaged in a lively discussion about the posters which Pieter-Jans eagerly examined.  Marie showed a keen interest in the posters and the discussion too, especially when Wanda pointed out the fact that only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum was visible to sighted people. By far the greater part had to be interpreted using instruments in any case, which is why she promotes converting signals to sound as a means for visually impaired people to participate in astronomy, because of their more acute hearing.

Peter-Jans with one of the posters Wande gave him
Peter-Jans with one of the posters Wande gave him
Wanda and Pieter-Jans warming to the topic of solar weather.
Wanda and Pieter-Jans warming to the topic of solar weather
Wanda and Marie exchange views while Pieter-Jans studies one of the TOuch the Invisible Universe posters
Wanda and Marie exchange views while Pieter-Jans studies one of the “Touch the Invisible Sky” posters
Marie and Pieter-Jans paying close attention while Wanda explains some finer points
Marie and Pieter-Jans paying close attention while Wanda explains some finer points

By the time Pieter-Jans’s father, John, arrived we were ready for the second round of coffee, melktert and rusks. John slipped effortlessly into the discussions and in-between talking, and sipping his coffee also took time to look at the posters.  After coffee, John excused himself as he had promised to attend a rugby match in which his other son was playing.  Before he left though we did take a photograph of the family.

Wanda, Marie, Pieter-Jans, myself and John on the extreme right.  I am holding one of the "Touch the Invisible Universe" posters while John sips his coffee and looks at one of the "From the Earth to the Sky" posters
Wanda, Marie, Pieter-Jans, myself and John on the extreme right. I am holding one of the “Touch the Invisible Sky” posters while John sips his coffee and looks at one of the “From the Earth to the Sky” posters
John attending to the fire Wanda, Marie and Pieter-Jans with one of the "Touch the Invisible Sky" posters
John attending to the fire Wanda, Marie and Pieter-Jans with one of teh “Touch the Invisible Sky” posters

Lynnette and I would like to thank Marie and John for welcoming us, total strangers, into their home and on such short notice too. We intend going back as soon as possible to visit Pieter-Jans and to expand his astronomy knowledge.  On subsequent visits, we also hope to discuss astronomy with his classmates and his science teacher.

Wanda and Pieter-Jans holding one of the "From the Earth to the Sky" posters
Wanda and Pieter-Jans holding one of the “From the Earth to the Sky” posters
The Durr family with Wanda: John on the left, Wanda, Pieter-Jans and Marie on the right
Wanda with the The Durr family of Malmesbury: John on the left, Wanda, Pieter-Jans and Marie on the right

Pulses and Pulsars – An introduction to time domain radio astronomy

Pulses and Pulsars – An introduction to time domain radio astronomy

Presented by Dame (Susan) Joycelyn Bell Burnell of the University of Oxford Astrophysics and Mansfield College. The presentation took place at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study’s (STIAS) Wallenberg Centre on the 19th of February 2014

I am always slightly apprehensive about attending talks by visiting academics of the stature of Dame Joycelyn Bell Burnell.  Perhaps this apprehension stems from a lack of confidence in my own understanding of the field they are going to cover in their talks.  There are also other possible issues like the quality of the presentation and how clearly the person will speak and, of course, the acoustics of the venue.  The STIAS venue does not have good acoustics and experience has taught me that academics of international repute do not necessarily speak clearly or have well laid out talks using clear and legible slides.  I had read that Jocelyn was a good presenter but, just to be safe, Lynnette and I made sure that we got seats close to the front (third row) and more or less on the centre line of the projection screen.

Jocelyn’s talk covered quite a lot of ground.  She touched briefly on her original discovery of the first three pulsars during her PhD-studies and then talked at length on the characteristics of pulsars.  She started off explaining how very high mass stars had short lives and eventually ended up as pulsars.  Dame Bell Burnell made mention of their enormous masses, all crammed into balls with 10 km radii resulting in incredibly high densities and really freakish gravitational and magnetic fields.  Jocelyn humorously sketched the possible consequences to humans if they should visit a pulsar and concluded that such a visit could definitely be injurious to one’s health and one’s credit card.  We were taken on a visit to the only known pulsar that has a planetary system associated with it and also introduced to the short lived world of the brief radio pulses that are currently puzzling radio astronomers.  Most of these reports originate from an Australian radio telescope and I was wondering whether Wombats or any of the other marsupials Down-Under squeak at around 700 Hz?

Lastly she looked at the SKA-project and briefly made mention of the greatly increased sensitivity the instrument would bring to the field of radio astronomy.  After her talk Jocelyn fielded a large number of questions on topics not always related to the subject of her presentation.

Jocelyn’s presentation was excellent at all levels.  Her ability to relate to and communicate with people was clearly demonstrated by the throngs of questioners that she patiently handled after the talk.  Her patience even extended to having her picture taken with members of the Cape Center of ASSA, including Lynnette and myself.

Lynnette and Dame Joycelyn Bell Burnell with the SKA’s Bernie Fanaroff trying to avoid the camera.
Edward and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell


Carol, Dame Joycelyn Bell Burnell and Serena

SKA an R18bn boost to South African economy

SKA an R18bn boost to economy: Hanekom

The first phase of the Square Kilometer Array radio telescope in the Karoo could result in an inflow of R18bn into South Africa, says science & technology minister Derek Hanekom.

“Preliminary estimates for the operations cost put the potential net foreign inflow into South Africa — for SKA phase one only — at close to R18bn over the lifetime of the project, ” he said in a written reply to a parliamentary question. The construction on phase one of the SKA project is set to start in 2016. The funding model to build the world’s biggest and most sensitive radio telescope was still being negotiated at an international level and the construction budget for SKA phase two has yet to be determined.

The project is managed by the international SKA Organisation, comprised of: Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and the UK. An array of dish receptors will extend into eight African countries from a central core region near Carnarvon where a further array of mid-frequency aperture arrays will also be built. The eight African partners are Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia while a smaller array of dish receptors and an array of low frequency aperture arrays will be located in western Australia.

R1,9bn for SKA, MeerKAT telescopes

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and MeerKAT radio telescope projects have been allocated R1,9bn over the next three years, according to the 2013 national budget tabled by finance minister Pravin Gordhan before the South African Parliament on Wednesday the 27th of February, 2013.

SA has also started negotiations with foreign partners to help fund the construction of the world’s next generation radio telescope — the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) — which is set to dwarf any other existing astronomy instrument. The SKA project will suck in a broad investment expected to run to billions of US dollars, a bill SA expects its partners in the deal will have to pick up part of. The bulk of the project will be built in SA,s remote and arid south-west in the Karoo region.

Bernie Fanaroff, a graduate in physics from the University of the Witwatersrand, has worked as a radio astronomer for more than a decade and in that time he has made two major international contributions to the science. One, in 1974, was a breakthrough in the classification of radio galaxies with a British astronomer, Julia Riley. It is called the Fanaroff-Riley classification and is renowned among astronomers.  His second, and for South Africa perhaps the more significant one, is that he lead the team that has landed the biggest global scientific project in Africa, the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA.

South Africa now has the lion’s share of the SKA project, but now we need to start producing the scientists to carry out the research on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, if we want the project to be an unqualified success. The head of astronomy at the National Research Foundation (NRF), Nithaya Chetty, is quoted as having said that it was essential for the continent to start investing in human capacity development.  In his own words,. “It is going to be absolutely tragic, if all we do is build up the infrastructure and we don’t have sufficient African scientists to utilize these excellent facilities.”

All this Big Science is happening about 70 km northwest of the sleepy Karoo town of Carnarvon, which reputedly has more churches than ATMs. This former 19th-century mission station is the closest town to a science and astronomy hub that is forming in the arid central Karoo region where the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) mega-telescope will be built. Scientists now fly in on a weekly chartered flight. Property prices have shot up, the number of guesthouses has grown, and the pretty town of fewer than 6 000 people has made it onto television news weather maps.

But, one in two locals are still unemployed, and the SKA team has cautioned that most of the jobs will be in the construction phase on the site. People have high expectations that the MeerKAT/SKA project is going to alleviate the poverty in this region, but it’s a science project, not a job creation project.  Only time will tell what the overall effect of these projects will be on Carnarvon.


Setting the Dark On Fire: Beautiful View of Clouds of Cosmic Dust in the Region of Orion

Dense clouds of gas and dust in the depths of space are recognized as the birthplace of new stars.  At the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, which humans can see, the dust clouds are dark and effectively obscure the background stars. William Herschel, help observing such a cloud in Scorpius remarked, “Hier ist wahrhaftig ein loch im Himmel!”

To truly come to grips with the processes involved in star formation, a method is required that will enable astronomers to see into and beyond these clouds.  The Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Chilean Andes, is the largest single-dish submillimetre-wavelength telescope operating in the southern hemisphere, and is exactly what the doctor or at least the astronomers ordered, for studying the birthplace of stars..

The subject of this investigation is the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex situated 1500 light-years away from Earth, which makes it the closest region of massive star formation to Earth.  The new image in the article can be compared to an older image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope at  (http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/opo0010a/). The region in this image is located about two degrees south of Messier 42, the well-known Orion Nebula.

To view the new image and read the rest of the article click here to go to the specific ScienceDaily.page.

How the Universe Has Cooled Since the Big Bang Fits Big Bang Theory

Using the  Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) near Narrabri, NSW, an international team from Sweden, France, Germany and Australia has successfully measured how warm the Universe was when it was half its current age. The data is in complete agreement with the predictions of the Big Bang Theory.

Dr Robert Braun, Chief Scientist at CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science says their results represent the most precise measurement ever made of the cooling of the Universe during its 13.77 billion year history,

“Our results verify the prediction of the Big Bang Theory, that the Universe of several billion years ago was a few degrees warmer than it is now,” said the leader of the research team, Dr Sebastian Muller of Onsala Space Observatory at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

To read the rest of the article click here to go to the specific ScienceDaily.page.