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Cape of Good Hope: a stargazer's paradise steeped in history
Posted on 02/06/2017

NatureSouth Africa

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Home to the mighty South African Astronomical Observatory, Cape of Good Hope is the embodiment of South Africa's astrological prowess.

Observatories galore

Observatories galore

Who doesn't love marvelling at twinkling white pinpricks set against a dramatic sapphire-black sky? Although the world was blessed with a bounty of places to while away hours ogling at balls of gas burning millions of miles away, the Cape of Good Hope's skies can rival that of the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Work to build the majestic South African Astronomical Observatory began in 1820. However, for some 500 years before, the tumultuous seas surrounding the Cape of Good Hope saw myriad ships grappling with the waves with little to no usable stellar navigation. Literally braving unchartered waters, these ships had to wrestle with both foreign waters and unfamiliar skies, as they were unable to map the positions of the Southern stars.

The year 1820 marked the year when a man named Fearon Fallows went to the Cape of Good Hope to ascertain the position of these Southern stars. Sent on behalf of the Royal Society of Astronomers, his intention was to help reduce the number of inevitable nautical disasters. An exceptional astronomer and mathematician from Cockermouth in the north of England, Fallows was as erudite as onecould ask from someone tasked with a near-impossible job. Although plagued by vicious sand and dust storms and snakes, coupled with lack of qualified stone masons to stabilise early astronomical equipment, Fallows ensured the original structure for the observatory was completed in 1829.

Fallows passed away just three years later from recurring scarlet fever, but his legacy will forever live on. He is in fact buried on the grounds of the observatory steeped in history. His plotting of the southern skies appeared in star catalogues in 1851, and his successor's catalogue of southern stars paved the way for refined sidereal astronomy in the southern hemisphere. This is as esoteric field which relates to constellations and their daily patterns and movements within the southern hemisphere.

In just 1833, the observatory's measurements were so accurate that they were able to measure the distance of Alpa Centauri, our closest star, which is almost four and a half lightyears away, to within 1/5000th of a degree. To put it into perspective, the South African Astronomical Observatory has registered that it is like measuring the diameter of a penny from two and a half miles away.

The observatory at the Cape of Good Hope eventually erected a campus of telescopes in Sutherland. Although this is around four hours away from the Observatory itself, the chosen location is known today as a dark sky hotspot, largely untarnished by light pollution or clouds. At this site, astrologers have built the biggest telescope in the southern hemisphere, which unsurprisingly has been named the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT). Having opened in 2005 is home to 91 three-foot mirrors which creates a light-gathering surface of 835 square feet. And that's just one of their telescopes.

South Africa's splendid skies beguile visitors from all over the globe, and you can embark upon a tour of SALT itself to learn more about the ins and outs of the glorious world of astrology.

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