The South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) will on October 20, 2020 celebrate 200 years since it was founded in 1820. The event has been planned to coincide with the unveiling ceremony of the observatory as a National Heritage Site in Cape Town. In December 21, 2018, the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) officially declared the SAAO as a national heritage asset because its buildings are of special architectural significance.
The event, to be live-streamed across the globe to ensure maximum inclusivity, will be co-hosted by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the SAHRA. Ministers Dr. Blade Nzimande and Nkosinathi Mthethwa, minister of Arts and Culture, have been invited to take part, albeit remotely.
SAAO managing director, Professor Petri Vaisanen said the theme for the event is “Beyond 200 Years of Astronomy”. He expressed his excitement about the celebration of the anniversary and the national heritage status conferred to the observatory.
“This occasion is an opportunity to recall some great scientific achievements. But more than that, it is an opportunity to celebrate our country’s and continent’s rich heritage in attempting to understand the universe and our place in it. In particular, we want to convey the pure excitement of exploring the amazing universe we are part of, and also highlight the many benefits that science brings to society…we see this future full of opportunity, inspiration, and pride in the excellence of decidedly African Astronomy at the forefront of a cutting-edge global pursuit,” said Vaisanen.
He said the unveiling ceremony will also include an Africa-centred Astronomy Symposium and a virtual astronomy festival. The symposium, he added, will cover a variety of topics ranging from current and future science, the history of astronomy on the continent to cultural and sociological aspects of astronomy. The ceremony will also serve to launch an extended period of 200 Days of Astronomy aimed at engaging the community through a series of activities, said Vaisanen.
To celebrate Astronomy and Space Sciences during the month of October the SAAO, in partnership with Scifest Africa, host a joint Virtual Festival. The festival will host a series of small events each week culminating in the online virtual festival from October 20-23, 2020.
There will also be a four-day programme with discussions focusing on NASA missions, searching for life in the universe, astro-tourism and a virtual star-party event hosted by the reigning house music maestro, Master KG. One of the visual highlights of the event is that the SAAO Main Building will be illuminated with the South African Flag on the evenings of October 19 and 20, 2020 from 20:00 to 22:00.
Vaisanen said in 2021 they will open a new Visitors Centre in Cape Town to target a diverse audience including learners, students, tourists and members of the public. The centre will also house engaging exhibits showcasing the science and technology of the SAAO and the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), as well as multi-cultural exhibits featuring African starlore.
Vaisanen said astronomy is steadily growing across the African continent, with the newly revitalized African Astronomical Society. He said the next important event on the calendar of astronomy, is the biggest meeting of General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union. Scheduled to take place in four years’ time in Cape Town, the meeting will be the first General Assembly held on the African continent since the establishment of the Union over 100 years ago – securing the recognition of Africa’s contribution to global science.
SAAO was formerly known as The Royal Observatory Cape of Good Hope. It is the oldest scientific institution in the country that used to be controlled by the British Admiralty with a specific mission to improve navigation. In 1971 SAAO came into being after it was decided to merge all the major facilities for optical astronomical research into one body.
It currently falls under the National Research Foundation and operates one of the biggest optical telescopes in the southern hemisphere known as the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) at Sutherland, along with two dozen smaller telescopes.
Since its founding, SAAO has made significant contributions to the scientific community chief of which is the positional astronomy in the southern hemisphere. Some of the observations made by the Cape astronomers include:
- the first measurement of the distance to a star
- the first photographic sky survey, the accurate measurement of the distance to the Sun developments in stellar spectroscopy (which allow us to determine the motions, the temperatures, and even the chemical compositions, of the stars) and
- the determination of the shape of the Earth in the southern hemisphere and the first accurate geodetic surveys of southern Africa.
Today the SAAO has been re-positioned and turned into a “vibrant modern astrophysical institute undertaking research to understand fundamental questions about the Universe”. Among these are tracking the flow of natural elements from stars in galaxies to eventually enabling life, the prevalence of planets around other stars, small bodies in our solar system, and high energy cosmic events. The Cape Town site boasts state-of-the art workshops for technological development.