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A new window into deep space

Dartmouth to share in multinational project for new 10-meter telescope, one of the largest in the world

One of the "first light" images taken by the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT),  showing an ancient cluster of several hundred thousand stars over 100 light years across, located on the edge of the Milky Way galaxy about 15,000 light years from Earth.

One of the "first light" images taken by the Southern African Large Telescope
One of the "first light" images taken by the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT),  showing an ancient cluster of several hundred thousand stars over 100 light years across, located on the edge of the Milky Way galaxy about 15,000 light years from Earth. (Photo courtesy of SALT)

Dartmouth researchers are celebrating the arrival of the first color images from the new Southern African Large Telescope, called SALT. This achievement, known as "first light," marks the successful operation of the telescope, which took five years to build. Dartmouth is one of the more significant partners in this multinational project, with an 11 percent share. SALT is the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere, and one of the three largest in the world.

"The images speak for themselves," said Robert Fesen, Professor of Physics and Astronomy. "They are excellent for so early in the initial operations phase. This will be a huge asset to Dartmouth students, both undergraduate and graduate. For the next decade, SALT will be one of the best as far as telescopes go."

Fesen, one of Dartmouth's SALT project leaders, said that the location in South Africa, on a hilltop near the tiny town of Sutherland, is one of the darkest places on earth. A dark environment facilitates the telescope's ability to gather light, allowing it to "see" deep into space. Adding to this are the 91 hexagonal mirror segments that comprise SALT's mammoth primary mirror array, stretching 11 meters across (about 33 feet), with a collecting area of a single 10-meter telescope mirror.

Brian Chaboyer, the other project leader and an Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy, said, "Our 11 percent share allows for about 30 nights of use each year. The teaching and learning opportunities for the Dartmouth community are incredible. There are very few colleges or universities that have this kind of access for their faculty and students."

Both Fesen and Chaboyer eagerly anticipate the new SALT images that will contribute to their work. Their research interests bookend the life of a star. Chaboyer looks at the birth of stars, calculating their age. Fesen studies supernovas, exploding stars and the debris they leave behind. Research like theirs provides insight into the earliest moments of the universe.

Over the next few months, SALT's telescope and instruments will be calibrated and tested. South African President Thabo Mbeki will officially open SALT on Nov. 10.

By SUSAN KNAPP

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Last Updated: 12/17/08