The South African National Space Agency Space Science facility in Hermanus used to be called the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory. Now its functions have expanded. Scientists there monitor space weather and the Earth’s fluctuating electromagnetic field. They do fascinating work, and you can find out more by doing a tour.

Did you know?

Racing pigeon enthusiasts check in with Sansa regularly, since electromagnetic fluctuations affect their birds’ navigation abilities.

The pretty coastal town of Hermanus, about an hour’s drive east of Cape Town, has assets beyond the best whale watching in the world – it is also home to the South African National Space Agency (Sansa) Space Science facility.

Formerly known as the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory, it monitors and provides early warnings on space weather close to Earth. This includes solar storms, solar winds and disturbances in the ionosphere.

By good fortune, it is well placed to observe a strange planetary phenomenon – the South Atlantic Anomaly. The Earth’s magnetic field is weakening slowly (for reasons no-one can quite explain), but is doing so with speed in a large and growing patch that straddles South America and South Africa. The patch is called the South Atlantic Anomaly.

Many scientists think the anomaly (which is like a very weak North Pole in the wrong place) may herald the beginning of a polar switch (Earth's poles reversing polarity).

The poles switch roughly every 500 000 years, and it’s been 780 000 years since the last switch, so we’re more than a little overdue. No-one knows how long it could take – perhaps several thousands of years.

The Sansa facility also monitors solar flares that might affect electricity grids, satellites and digital information.

Interestingly enough, it wouldn’t be there at all were it not for Sir William Hoy. Based in Cape Town, Hoy was head of South African Railways in the early 1900s. But he and his wife, Gertrude, loved their little bolthole in Hermanus.

A station had been built there, in anticipation of a railway link. But Hoy, reluctant to pollute his favourite little town with dirty steam trains along with too many holidaymakers, steadfastly thwarted any plans.

The railway station, still without a rail link, remains, and is the headquarters for the local tourism offices.

In the 1940s, Cape Town’s magnetic observatory had to be moved because the recently built suburban railway lines created too much electromagnetic interference.

They chose Hermanus – which remains magnetically ‘clean’.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Sansa Space Science facility, Hermanus
Catherine Webster
Tel: +27 (0)28 312 1196
Cell: +27 (0)73 601 4488
Email: cwebster@sansa.org.za

How to get here

Take the N2 from Cape Town past the airport. Take the offramp marked Botrivier and Hermanus and follow the signs to Hermanus, past little towns like Hawston and Vermont. As you approach the centre of town, you’ll see clearly marked signs to the South African National Space Agency.

Best time to visit

A tour is offered every Wednesday at 11am.

Around the area

Hermanus is in the scenic Overberg, with a spectacular coastline, jagged mountains and intriguing little towns.

Tours to do

Groups of 10 or more can book for tours on days other than a Wednesday.

What will it cost

The tour is absolutely free.

Length of stay

The tour generally takes about an hour.

Where to stay

Hermanus has a wide variety of accommodation, including hotels, guest houses and B&Bs.

What's happening

The Kalfiefees (Calf Festival) is held every August in Hermanus to celebrate the birth of southern right whales off the shores. This is followed at the end of September with the Whale Festival.