Star Gazing

Star Gazing SALT houses the largest single optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. Image by Andrew Webster.
Star Gazing Stargazing with Jurg Wagener at Sterland
Star Gazing
Star Gazing Blesfontein Stargazing

Look Up

Over 25 000 years ago, the KhoiSan or Bushmen people who inhabited this region knew that time is in the stars. They had a remarkably extensive knowledge of the stars and wove this wisdom into the rhythm of their lives. The 19th-century scholar Dr Wilhelm Bleek, who studied their languages and analysed their legends, found evidence that the Bushmen had observed the movements of the planet Jupiter and its four main moons with the naked eye. These Bushman legends date back to before Galileo made his observations with his first telescope.

Like the earliest people, we are still awed by the mystery of the stars, planets and distant galaxies. Today, the extraordinary clarity of Sutherland’s cloudless, pollution-free night skies and its high elevation above sea level makes it a prime star-gazing destination and the perfect site for the South African Astronomical Observatory.

The observatory houses the largest single optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. Based on the design of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas, it consists of a primary, hexagonal mirror 11 metres wide made up of 91 individual hexagonal mirrors, each one metre wide and weighing about 100kg.

This great eye probing the universe is sensitive enough to pick up the light of a single candle on the moon – but its main job is to scan deep space, witnessing the birth and death of planets, gazing into distant galaxies and recording the scale and age of the universe, stars, galaxies and quasars billions of light years away.

The telescope cost about US$30 million, of which South Africa contributed a third and international partners the balance.

Amateur star-gazers can set up their own telescopes at the nearby visitors’ centre. The facility is open to the public with four evening tours a week and daily daytime (excluding Sundays) tours. Booking are essential to avoid disappointment. Contact the Observatory on +27 (0) 23 5712 436 or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
The emergency number is 076 9000 308 (in case lines are down). Visit http://www.saao.ac.za/about/visting/sutherland/ for updated information.

Alternatively contact Jurg Wagener (082 556 9589) for a more personal stargazing experience at ‘Sterland’, a privately owned and managed establishment.   Bookings for this very popular activity are still essential to avoid disappointment.

The show at Sterland starts @ (20:00 - 22:00 January - April), (19:00 - 21:00 May) ,(18:00 - 20:00 June - July),( 19:00 - 21:00 August) and (20:00 - 22:00 September - December.)  The show last for about two hours. The stargazer is first treated with an indoor presentation on a three meter big screen explaining all the constellations and sizes in the universe.

Inside the dam are numerous posters of Astronomy and books to be read. After that the stargazers are taken outside to the Muisbos Amphi theatre and first treated with an explanation of how to find South, with the aid of the Magellan Clouds, Southern Cross and other stars. They make use of a very powerful laser so that each stargazer can see what they are talking about.

All the relevant constellations, stars, planets and objects to be observed are then explained before looking through the eye piece of the telescope.

At present they make use of 6 x 11 inch (280mm) Celestron Go-To telescopes, each with its own GPS. Each telescope is operated by a knowledgeable person. Every stargazer gets enough time to enjoy the object to be seen. The show normally lasts two hours at the cost of R100-00/R120-00 per person.

Stargazing at Blesfontein Guest Farm
An alternative stargazing opportunity is available at Blesfontein Guest Farm. Blesfontein has an amateur observatory with two telescopes (15cm and a 20cm refractor) where Nicol takes guests stargazing at night. Do enquire when you book with Blesfontein. The cost is R70 per person. Please book to avoid disappointment. *Guests who stay on the farm will not be charged for stargazing as this is included in the experience. Do note there is only one guide and therefore it is important to book in advance.

Contact Blesfontein:
Contact Nicol and Marina van der Merwe
Tel:  +27(0)23 5712 631
Cell:  +27 (0)83 444 5810