30 July 2012 by Chris Marais

Eyes and ears on the universe

Carrying on the ancient sky-watching culture of the San, scientists from all over the world are watching and listening to the universe from various points in the Karoo.

Southern African Large Telescope outside Sutherland

For many thousands of years, the San used to watch the stars by night from their vantage points in the Karoo and the Kalahari, from the Cederberg across to the Stormberg and into the Drakensberg.

One of the sub-groups of the San had a story called 'The Girl Who Made Stars', about a young girl who once threw wood ashes up into the sky. Together, these ashes became the Milky Way.

According to legend, they could see stars with their naked eyes that we could not, faraway constellations only visible to their strong eyesight. But if you ever go to the hilltop outside Sutherland in the Northern Cape, where the Southern African Large Telescope stands, you will find yourself closer to the stars than you have ever been.

I’m not sure if it’s a trick of the eye or what, but on a clear night up there the heavens feel just beyond the touch of your hand, while nearby the night-shift star scientists are keeping a closer, more academic, watch on the universe.

And now we have SKA – the Square Kilometre Array. Situated about 80km from the town of Carnarvon, seven giant radio telescopes are the 'ears' on the universe, swinging from side to side and up and down, like giant robots searching for something.

One day there will be close on 2 500 of these massive structures out there, and it’s an aerial photograph I hope to take. South Africa and 8 other African partner countries have the lion’s share of a contract (with Australia getting a smaller but significant share as well) to monitor the galaxy.

Seven giant radio telescopes are the ‘ears’ on the universe, swinging from side to side and up and down like giant robots searching for something.

The hundreds of scientists working on the project will be interrogating, among many other things, Einstein’s theory of relativity. The daily information generated by SKA will be able to fill 15-million 64GB IPods.

But will they find out if that girl of legend really made the Milky Way out of wood ashes from an open-air Karoo hearth?

Category: Attractions


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