Instrument Notes

The upgraded Cassegrain Spectrograph (SpUpNIC) is available. Information on calculating exposure times can be found here.
GIRAFFE is currently unavailable for applications.
STE3 and STE4 are no longer available on the 1.9-metre telescope.


For astronomers visiting the SAAO to observe on our telescopes, you will require a visitor visa. Application for this should be directed to the South African embassy in the country from which you originate. Visit.

Important Note for Prospective Observers

Due to an increased demand in accommodation in Sutherland as a result of more activities at SALT due to ongoing recommissioning, accommodation has once again become a big challenge. And this is going to be even more serious in the coming weeks due to a large number of people that are anticipated to be involved in the recommissioning teams. As a result, we will need to limit the number of observers at each of our telescopes that we can accommodate on site at the hostel to 2 (two). Therefore, if you are planning to send more than two observers at any of our telescopes, please be aware that you may be sent to accommodation in town for the extra observer(s), or be prepared to share a room between yourselves. Otherwise you will need to give a strong motivation to and require approval from the SAAO director detailing why you need more than two observers.

Although we encourage student involvement in your observational visits to Sutherland given the importance of training future astronomers, in some instances, we will need to put more than one student in a room, and therefore students should ALWAYS be prepared to share a room on site. Irrespective of whether they are observing on their own or not; if necessary, students may be asked to share a room.
Please note that we have already increased the number of hostel rooms available by two (as a result of the recent refurbishment of the south wing). And we continue to push for the necessary funding to construct a dedicated student block as part of the hostel.

Notes for Observers

  • It is not always possible to provide a support astronomer for the first night of a run. It may therefore be necessary for visitors unfamiliar with a telescope or instrument to arrive at Sutherland in sufficient time to spend e.g. 1-2 days overlapping with the previous week’s observer. Visitors with reasonable experience of the telescope/instrument will be expected to start by themselves. Please liaise with observer@saao.ac.za on this issue.
  • It is becoming increasingly difficult – because of technical staff involvement with SALT – to carry out the frequent instrument changes that were possible in the past. It is therefore likely that the “majority” instrument requested on each telescope in a given quarter will be favoured, to minimise the number of instrument changes. Therefore, some instruments – such as the SAAO CCD or the CCD spectrograph – might be on the telescope for many weeks. This means that at some stage, the dewar vacuums will need to be repumped and this could result in some loss of observing time.


The below links will take you to the master copy of the observing rotas for Sutherland:

January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December, IRSF Rota

The instrument shown in the rota will be the standard configuration. If something other than the normal instrumental configuration is required, then send a text file which describes your requirements to observer@saao.ac.za. This could include the filter set to be used, CCD type, or anything else which differs from the standard configuration. The information you send will be linked to the record of your observing run on the rota.

The observing rota for Sutherland is compiled every quarter. Remember to check this schedule for possible changes which may affect your observing run. If you want to make changes to your observing request, contact observer@saao.ac.za.


SAAO is situated in the suburb of Observatory, about 5 km SE of central Cape Town, 13 km from Cape Town’s international airport, and about 1 km from Observatory station. Shops and guest houses are nearby, and hotels and larger shopping districts are readily accessible by train and bus. The University of Cape Town (UCT) is about 3 km away. The precise location of the Observatory (Gill transit circle) is 18°28´35.7″, 33°56´02.5″ S. The mean time in South Africa is South African Standard Time (SAST). SAST is ahead of UT by 2 hr.

Communicating with SAAO

The postal address of the Observatory is:

South African Astronomical Observatory
P.O. Box 9
Observatory, Cape Town, 7935
South Africa

The street address is:

South African Astronomical Observatory
Observatory Road
Observatory, Cape Town, 7925
South Africa

Telephone No: 447-0025 (office hours–0800 to 1630)
Fax No.: 447-3639
Dialling codes: National: 021; International: +27 21
E-mail address: enquiries@saao.ac.za


The Business Manager is in charge of administration and is responsible to the Director. Any administrative questions should be directed to the Business Manager in the first instance. Visitors are requested to assist as follows:

  • If equipment is to be brought for an observing run, observers should where possible use the “carnet” system for customs purposes. To avoid possible delays in customs clearance, equipment should arrive in Cape Town a week before the start of the observing run.
  • Bills for accommodation, meals, telephone calls, fax messages and transport etc. should be paid when rendered.

Travel Arrangements

In order to avoid difficulties at the start of an observing run, visiting observers should allow adequate time for discussions and preparation in Cape Town, and should arrange to visit SAAO on the Monday preceding their trip to Sutherland or earlier. In any event, visitors are advised to arrange to arrive in Cape Town at the latest on the Sunday before a run, to allow time for acclimatisation and recovery from their trip, and to safeguard against late arrival of a flight. Visitors should arrange to spend sufficient time (usually two working days) in Cape Town after their run if reductions or data copying are to be undertaken by SAAO staff. Normally, visitors arriving at Cape Town airport should take a taxi to their hotel or guest house, and the same procedure should be followed on departure.


The Koornhoop Manor House is located within walking distance of the Observatory. Other guest houses can also be found nearby, and some may be cheaper. Numerous hotels and guest houses are available elsewhere in Cape Town at a wide range of prices, but travel to the Observatory by public transport can be difficult from some areas.

Alternatively there is self-catering accommodation available within the tranquil grounds of the Observatory in Cape Town. Rates are displayed below. Reduced rates are available for long term stays. Payments can be made by credit card.

Please confirm accommodation rates at the time of your booking as they are subject to change.

Please contact Valencia Cloete regarding your accommodation arrangements. Visitors who arrange their own accommodation should supply the Observatory with an address and telephone number for emergency purposes.


A transport officer is in charge of all official vehicles and none of them may be driven without a driving licence that is valid in South Africa (e.g. an international licence or one bearing the driver’s photograph). Visitors may not drive official vehicles before providing a copy of their licences to Valencia Cloete. Unscheduled trips require pre-approval and the visitor will be responsible for the invoice.


There is no cafeteria or canteen, but a microwave in the kitchen can be used to heat lunches or parts thereof. Morning tea (10:30) is provided in the library, afternoon tea (15:00) in the kitchen. A number of restaurants and a miniature “supermarket” are located a short distance away in the village business centre of Observatory.


Visiting observers are welcome to use the library facilities during their stay. Desks can be found in the Atlas Room. Any queries can be directed to the librarian.


The village of Sutherland is located North-East of Cape Town, about 370 km by road. The observatory is about 18 km to the East of the village, at an elevation of 1798 m. The precise geographical position of the 1.0-m telescope is 20° 48´ 38.5” E; 32° 22´ 46” S.

From Cape Town, the N1 National Road is followed for about 250 km to Matjiesfontein where one turns left on to the Sutherland road. The speed limit on the N1 is 120 km/h. From Sutherland, vehicles should follow the road to Fraserburg for the remaining 14 km to the observatory gate, which – with its somewhat incongruous avenue of pine trees in the desert – is difficult to miss. The route is depicted on the map below.

If petrol is required en-route, it can be obtained at Komkyk Motors (green sign) or the Petroport (red sign) where the N1 passes Touws River, at about the halfway point. Drivers refueling observatory vehicles must do so at the Petroport. Snacks are available at either establishment at any time, though most observers stop for fast food lunches at the Petroport. An alternative is to stop for lunch at the turn-of-the-century resort of Matjiesfontein (The Laird’s Arms serves pub lunches and snacks all day from 10:00; a coffee shop is open from 09:00 to 17:00).

Route to SAAO, Sutherland


The main telephone number for the Observatory is 023 571 1205. During office hours calling this number will ring through to the switchboard; if no answer, or after hours, calls will be directed to an Interactive Voice Recording and the caller will be able to enter an extension number to reach their destination.

Calls to the outside world can be made from any of the domes; visitors should request a telephone PIN number from the IT Department (helpdesk@saao.ac.za). Call duration is monitored and calls will be charged to the visitor’s account. Some of the domes have an outside line and can receive calls from outside the observatory without going via the switchboard:

1.9-m: 023 100 0221
1.0-m: 023 100 0222
IRSF: 023 100 0223

Other domes amy also have direct numbers. If so, this number will be displayed on the telephone.

There is a fax machine in the reception at SAAO Hostel. Faxes are not printed by default, rather they are delivered via email to the receptionist. The fax number is 023 571 1413.

Data links to the Internet are available from a PC in each dome and from one in the hostel library. Visitors are encouraged to connect to their home institutes via the Internet, but for an extended stay, a private account on the SAAO system can be arranged. If you need such an account, please contact the SAAO IT Department (helpdesk@saao.ac.za) in good time to request an account. Connectivity is provided in the form of a 1Gbps link directly to Cape Town and then out to the internet over our fibre link to our ISP, TENET. Current international bandwidth is 17Mbps so please use with consideration and throttle the speeds of any large data transfers.


Transport of observers and their equipment to Sutherland normally leaves Cape Town on Tuesdays at about 10:00 (arriving at the site at about 16:00). The returning transport officially leaves Sutherland at 14H00 on Wednesdays but this time various at the discretion of departing astronomers. Transport of visiting observers on these scheduled runs is free of charge. Should visitors request a special journey, the Observatory reserves the right to ask for reimbursement from the visitor or his parent establishment.

Accommodation & Catering

Accommodation is available for observers on-site, about 1 km by road from the telescopes. Rooms with private bathrooms are provided in two chalets and a hostel with 17 single rooms (which are now all en-suite), a communal sitting room, reading room and dining room. Smokers will need to step outside into the brisk (especially in July) Karoo air.

Three Meals per Day are Provided:

Breakfast: 07H30 – 09H30
Lunch: 13H00 – 14H00
Supper: 17H00 – 18H00 depending on time of year

Observers requiring lunch at 13H00 should write their request on the blackboard in the hostel dining room by breakfast time. “Night lunches” will be prepared for each observer to collect from the kitchen and take to the telescope each night. The contents of the night lunch should be arranged with the kitchen staff on arrival at the hostel. Observers with special dietary requirements (vegetarian, allergies, etc.) should notify the observatory in advance.

Accommodation rates

Credit card payments can be made in Sutherland or in Cape Town. Please contact Valencia Cloete with any queries.

Dome keys, car keys and torches should be collected from Reception in the hostel foyer on the first day of the observing run, and should be returned before departure to Cape Town.

There are no general laundry facilities, but the hostel staff are prepared to do laundry on a private basis at rates similar to those charged by laundries in Cape Town. To arrange this, observers should speak to the hostel manager, Magdalena van Wyk.

Office Accommodation

There are now internet connections in most bedrooms. There is a computer connected to the internet in the small hostel library, and at least one in each telescope dome. There are printers in each SAAO dome and a printer/copier in the Hostel Office.

Technical Assistance

Visiting observers who are unfamiliar with the telescope/instrument they are scheduled to use, and who have requested assistance on their telescope time application form, will be allocated a support astronomer. This will be either an SAAO staff astronomer, or an observer who is familiar with the instrumentation to be used, and whose name will appear below the observer’s on the rota. Typically, the support astronomer will be present at the telescope for as long as necessary on the first night of the run, in order to assist visitors in making an efficient start. Occasionally it is not possible to allocate a support astronomer, in which case the observer may be asked to arrive at Sutherland in sufficient time to spend e.g. 1-2 days overlapping with the previous week’s observer.

Resident technical staff will give assistance and tend to problems and faults where necessary. Electronic, mechanical and IT technicians are on call in case of breakdown of telescopes or equipment during the night. Their contact numbers are displayed in each dome.

Instrument Changes and Response to Reported Faults

Instrument Changes

Necessary instrument changes are generally carried out at Sutherland on Wednesday mornings. Normally, the largest telescope requiring a change is done first followed by the next largest and so on. Depending on availability of personnel, work may proceed on two telescopes at once. Usually, all changes are completed by lunch time. Occasionally a fault is discovered in the course of the change which is judged to require a lengthy effort to repair. The technicians may at that stage proceed to the next telescope, with a view to completing as many changes as possible before returning to repair the fault. As part of the instrument change procedure, technicians will carry out necessary tests to ensure things are working, all cables are correctly connected and that computers are working, etc.

It is up to the observer to make sure in good time that the equipment is working satisfactorily after the instrument change. This means that tests should be carried out on Wednesday afternoon. There should be no surprises (like an unexpected instrument, etc) when work starts on Wednesday night. At instrument change time, responsibilities are shared between observers and technical staff as follows:


  • Verify that basic functions of instrument work as expected
  • Set up and align IR cryostats
  • Establish that the required filters, gratings are in place (visitors should ask technical staff)


  • Install and certify correct operation of all electronic equipment
  • Check instrument control programs for correct operation


  • Install and certify correct operation of mechanical equipment
  • Pump down IR and optical CCD cryostats
  • Install/remove CCD filter boxes for observers

SAAO has agreements with some organisations that have installations at Sutherland to provide technical support. Occasionally there will be representatives of these organisations at Sutherland for a short period to carry out some specific installation, upgrade, etc. SAAO technical staff will usually be required to provide assistance to the visitors during this period. At such times there may be delays in obtaining technical assistance for the telescopes, though every effort will be made to ensure a telescope is fully operational at the beginning of the night. Observers will be kept informed of these activities, and are requested to curb their natural impatience in the face of such delays.

Fault Response

For all faults they encounter, observers are requested to write a factual, unemotional account of the problem in the online fault forum page dedicated to each telescope. Symptoms should be described fully – it is not sufficient merely to cite the reference number of a previous similar fault – and observers should refrain from diagnosing the fault or describing at some length the technical work that was done to correct it. All major faults should be reported promptly to the relevant duty technician (phone numbers are prominently displayed in the dome). At night, every effort will be made to rectify the fault immediately, but if after several hours of work without solution or if the problem is judged to be too severe for there to be any useful progress made, the technician may suspend work until the next morning. Minor problems encountered at night that have little impact on observing should be reported in the fault forum and will be worked on the next day.

Once the fault is rectified the technician will add a note to the fault forum, indicating the action taken. Observers are encouraged to report back under the corresponding fault, on whether the repairs had been satisfactory.

On rare occasions a major fault may occur in one of the international partner installations that would jeopardise the entire operation if not attended to immediately (eg, threatened loss of coolant from the SAGOS superconducting gravity meter). Under these circumstances, the SAAO technician responsible, in most instances the electronics technician, may give first priority to rectifying the fault, in which case it is conceivable that astronomical observing time may be lost if a fault is encountered at the same time with a telescope or instrument, but every effort will be made to avoid this. Otherwise, SAAO telescope faults have priority over minor faults in the international installations.

Observing Records & Feedback Forms

Completed Observing Records (together with the bottom copy of each triplicate logbook page, in the case of SpCCD, GIRAFFE and SAAO CCD data) should be placed in the “End of Run” tray in the dome on the last night of the observing run. Please also fill in the online Observers’ Feedback Form at the end of your run. If you have any difficulties, please contact Hannah Worters.

Observing Conditions

The weather patterns at Sutherland are not highly seasonal, and the clear weather appears to be fairly uniformly distributed throughout the year. Approximately 50% of the available hours are photometric, and about 75% are suitable for spectroscopy. Temperatures (especially at night) tend to be unpredictable. Snow has been known to fall at Christmas in the heart of summer, and cold weather may occur at any time of year! Observers are strongly advised to bring cold weather gear (a winter jacket, hat, gloves, etc.).

Facilities in the Domes

In every dome there is a kitchen equipped with a sink, kettle, coffee maker, microwave, toaster, snackwich maker, crockery and cutlery. Teas, coffees and sugar are provided.
Each dome now houses an iPod/iPhone-compatible music system with a radio and CD player, and which plays mp3s from a CD or USB stick. (Music not provided.)
There are wireless access points in the 1.9-m and 1.0-m domes.

Electrical Matters

Most outlets normally supply 230V 50 Hz current. Uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) are provided in the domes for sensitive instrumentation and computers. Almost all of the plugs are of the 3-pin 15A type (round pins, not the rectangular type used in the UK). Observers bringing their own equipment (e.g. laptops) should also bring their own adaptors. In the event of a power failure, the observatory has a 650 kVA generator.

Time Service

The central time service at Sutherland (installed October 1993) is a PC-based system with a mean time oscillator (ageing rate 1 X 10-9 per day) locked to signals from a GPS receiver once each minute. The resulting drift is no more than 1-2 microseconds per minute under normal conditions. Sidereal time is calculated from the mean time. Multiplexed time information is distributed to each dome via a fibre optic cable. In each dome the signal is demodulated and demultiplexed into separate RS422 signals (mean time, sidereal time, 1kHz pulse and 1 minute pulse). The RS422 signals are used by the instrument computer, telescope control system and time display. If you believe the time displayed is not correct, please notify the electronics technician.


The library at Sutherland is housed in the reading room of the hostel, with some publications shelved in the Visitor Centre. The library contains a small collection of charts, atlases (including the ESO B survey) and runs of journals. Observers using the SAAO network can access our e-journals. A suitably undistinguished collection of light reading for cloudy nights resides in the hostel lounge.

Visitor Centre & Shop

There are some interesting exhibits in the visitors centre and a shop selling souvenirs on-site.

Data Archives

VizieR provides access to the most complete library of published astronomical catalogues and data tables available on line. Query tools allow the user to select relevant data tables and to extract and format records matching given criteria.

Web Service

Simbad Astronomical database which provides basic data, cross-identifications, bibliography and measurements for astronomical objects outside the solar system.

Web Service

NED The NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (NED) provides a multi-wavelength fusion of data for millions of objects outside the Milky Way galaxy.

Web Service

SDSS DR12 Sloan Digital Sky Survey – A major research project dedicated to producing a systematic map of a quarter of the sky, producing new catalogues for deep-sky.

Web Service

2MASS Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS) – research project dedicated to producing a systematic map of the entire sky in near-infrared.

Web Service

ESO data archive ESO observational data can be requested through this facility after the proprietary period by the astronomical community.

Web Service

MAST The Multimission Archive at STScI is a project to support and provide to the astronomical community a variety of astronomical data archives, with the primary focus on scientifically related data sets in the optical, ultraviolet, and near-infrared parts of the spectrum.

Web Service

2dFGRS The 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey (2dFGRS) is a spectroscopic survey and spectra is obtained for 245591 objects, mainly galaxies.

Web Service

HyperLeda The extragalactic database. Photometry, kinematics spectrophotometry, archive of fits data.

Web Service

IPAC/IRSA data archive for scientific data sets from NASA’s infrared and sub-millimeter astronomy projects and missions.  Webservice

HLA The Hubble Legacy Archive (HLA) is designed to optimize science from the Hubble Space Telescope by providing online, enhanced Hubble products and advanced browsing capabilities.

Web Service

Data Discovery Tools

VOPlatform VOPlatform is a tool that provides users with an environment in which to place their frequently used VO tools and datasets, along with other resources such as documents, web links etc. The application has been developed in Java, and acts on data available in the VO Standard VOTable format.


VODesktop A desktop application for working with the Virtual Observatory. It can explore data resources, query remote catalogs, and construct workflows to automate tasks.


Datascope A Web Service for discovering and exploring data in the Virtual Observatory from archives and data centres around the world.

Web Service

Aladin An interactive software sky atlas allowing the user to visualize digitized images of any part of the sky, to superimpose entries from astronomical catalogs.

Web Service

SkyView A Virtual Observatory for generating images of any part of the sky at wavelengths in all regimes from Radio to Gamma-Ray.


VOEventNet VOEventNet enables rapid observations of the dynamic night sky. VOEventNet gathers streams of astronomical alerts and reports in a common format, so that both people and robotic systems can get the alerts quickly enough to respond with follow-up observations.

Web Service

Analysis Tools

ARCHANGEL It allows astronomers to do surface photometry of galaxies.

DownloadWeb Service

AstroStat allows astronomers to use both simple and sophisticated statistical routines on large datasets.


Montage It allows astronomers to make mosaics from 2MASS, DPOSS, or SDSS images and returns science-grade mosaics that preserve fluxes and astrometry and rectify backgrounds to a common level.

Web Service

Specview It is a tool for 1-D spectral visualization and analysis of astronomical spectra.

Web Service

SPLAT A spectra analysis tool.


Euro3D It allows astronomers to deal with datasets in the Euro3D FITS format.

Web Service

NVO Spectrum Services This service allows a large, distributed database of spatial object spectra and a collection of tools for common spectrum processing tasks.

Web Service

Yafit An SED fitting tool. Although it could be used in other contexts, it is mainly intended for fitting observed photometric data to calculated model spectra.


GOSSIP A tool which allows astronomers to fit the electro-magnetic emission of an object (the SED, Spectral Energy Distribution) against synthetic models.


EZ (Easy-Z) A tool which allows to estimate redshifts for extragalactic objects.


Plotting Tool

Topcat An interactive graphical viewer and editor for tabular data. It understands a number of different astronomically important formats (including FITS and VOTable) and more formats can be added.


VOPlot A tool for visualizing astronomical data. VOPlot is available as a stand alone version, which is to be installed on the user’s machine, or as a web-based version fully integrated with the VizieR database.


VOMegaPlot It has been specifically optimized for handling large number of points (in the range of millions). It has the same look and feel as VOPlot and both these tools have certain common functionality.


STILTS It deals with the processing of tabular data; the package has been designed for, but is not restricted to, astronomical tables such as object catalogues.


VOConvert A tool for converting files from one format to another. It supports following file format conversions: (1) ASCII to VOTable (2) FITS to VOTable and (3) VOTable to ASCII.


Please rate the following aspects of your observing run, and add any comments in the appropriate boxes.
Please rate the following aspects of your observing run, and add any comments in the appropriate boxes.
Please rate the following aspects of your observing run, and add any comments in the appropriate boxes.
Please rate the following aspects of your observing run, and add any comments in the appropriate boxes.
Please rate the following aspects of your observing run, and add any comments in the appropriate boxes.
Please rate the following aspects of your observing run, and add any comments in the appropriate boxes.
Please rate the following aspects of your observing run, and add any comments in the appropriate boxes.
Please rate the following aspects of your observing run, and add any comments in the appropriate boxes.
Please use this box for any other comments or suggestions (please include your email address if you would like us to respond to your comments):

Telescope Time Applications & Review Process

In keeping with its role as the National Facility for optical/infrared astronomy, SAAO makes telescope time available to qualified astronomers and post-graduate students in South Africa and SALT partners. A certain percentage of time is also granted to astronomers from around the world, to promote scientific and technological collaboration and to promote the exchange of ideas and information. Availability of observing time is advertised under Rota. Time allocations will be made on the basis of scientific merit and technical feasibility. Proposals are reviewed by the Sutherland Telescopes TAC (Time Assessment Committee) which conducts the business of providing a recommended list of observing programmes electronically. This occurs in the month following each deadline. The TAC consists of astronomers from the local and international community of users of the Sutherland telescopes. Prospective applicants for observing time should consult the pages for the telescope(s) and instrument(s) they may need to use.

Note that only researchers based at South African or Japanese institutions are eligible to apply for observing time on the IRSF. Those who are interested in applying for observing time on IRSF, and are not based at South African or Japanese institutions, should consider collaborating with researchers from South Africa and/or Japan. After the deadline, the IRSF proposals from South African applicants are sent to the IRSF ‘TAC’ in Japan for review and time allocation. The IRSF TAC is also responsible for the IRSF Rota as well as informing the applicants about the results of their applications.

Application Process

Please note that the application form has been updated again and can now be submitted electronically. You will have to register on the SAAO observer portal by signing up for a user account. You can then apply as usual by clicking on ‘Applications’ followed by ‘Apply Now’.
Note the following deadlines for submission of applications.

For Service Observing, detailed information and application forms can be found here. Applications for Service Observing can be submitted at any time.


Deadlines for applications are as follows:
15 September for Jan/Apr observing, and
15 January for May/Aug observing.
15 May for Sep/Dec observing;

Notes for Applicants

Night assistants are no longer available. Please state in your application form if you will require a support astronomer to start you off on the first night of your run.
There is significant strain on accommodation and transport to and from Sutherland. Visitors are therefore requested to plan for no more than two observers for each run. It is accepted that there are instances in which more than two observers are desirable (e.g. training of graduate students). If you feel you have such a case, please discuss this with Ramotholo Sefako well before your run, who will present this request to the Director.

Reports on Research done at SAAO

Authors using observations made from SAAO should include a note in the acknowledgements section of each paper with the words ‘This paper uses observations made at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO)‘. This information should be passed on to anyone to whom observations made at SAAO may be supplied.
Authors are requested to notify the librarian at SAAO Cape Town of any paper they publish using data obtained at SAAO.