Recent Developments

On this page you will find details of new equipment as it becomes available, and of improvements and upgrades to the telescopes and instrumentation.  If you are coming to observe, or are considering submitting an application for telescope time, please check this page for the latest developments.

New 1-metre robotic telescope in the pipeline

SAAO has contracted APM-Telescopes to build a new 1-metre alt-az telescope for Sutherland.  The telescope, currently in the advanced design phase, will have a wider field of view (~43 arcmin) than any of SAAO’s existing telescopes.  It will be housed in the decommissioned 0.75-m dome, for which structural modifications to the pier and observing floor are in the design phase.  It will have instruments mounted on two Nasmyth ports: a wide field camera on one side, and on the other a SHOC and a low-medium resolution spectrograph.  The telescope will ultimately be operated robotically.

New SHOC software

The new web-based software interface for operating SHOC was commissioned in April.  This software integrates the control of the camera, filter wheels and GPS, which were formerly operated independently using three different PCs and unable to interact with each other.  Being web-based, the camera can be operated remotely (though the telescope still requires an operator).  Additional keywords are now included in the FITS headers.  More information can be found in the press release and full instructions for use are in the wiki.

Service Observing

A reminder that observers may submit short service observation proposals at anytime, via the online submission form. Proposals are submitted to a database, which on-site observers using the telescope can access, and may choose to perform service observations alongside their own programme, on a voluntary basis.

0.5-m and 0.75-m telescopes decommissioned

In February 2015, SAAO’s 0.5- and 0.75-m telescopes were decommissioned, and donated to the University of the Free State and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, respectively.  The domes that housed these telescopes in Sutherland will be modified to accommodate the SAAO’s forthcoming 1-m robotic telescope, and the 0.65-m MeerLICHT telescope.


New web interface for submission of telescope time applications

A new web-based submission form for telescope time applications is now live!  The LaTeX format has been retired, please use the new form for all submissions from now on (first deadline is 15 March for Quarter 3 of 2014).

New filter wheel software for SHOC

A new web-based filter wheel control interface has been developed to replace the interim LabView program to control the filter wheels when using SHOC.  Filter wheels can now be controlled from a browser on the same PC as the SHOC software, eliminating the need for the additional laptop.  Filter position information is incorporated into the software, such that the user can now select the desired filter by name.  This is the first part of an ongoing project to develop a single integrated user interface for SHOC.  Note that it is not yet possible to change filters within a data cube.


Dedicated software engineer for SAAO instrumentation

The first software engineer dedicated to developing control software and user interfaces for instruments on SAAO’s 1.9-m and 1.0-m telescopes joined the observatory on 1 December.  Carel van Gend is with us on a 3-year contract, made possible by the infrastructure funds awarded to Telescope Operations by the NRF.  The first project he is working on is integrated software for the high-speed SHOC cameras.

1.0-m telescope limits – new safety features

As of September 2013, the 1.0-m telescope has hardware limits that stop the drive motors when the telescope reaches the edge of its observing envelope.  Details can be found in the telescope’s user guide.

Infrastructure awards!

SAAO Telescope Operations was successful in its bid to the NRF for infrastructure funds.  We have been awarded R9M over the next four years to carry out upgrades and improvements to the 1.9-m and 1.0-m telescopes and instruments.

New telescope time application form

The application form for time on SAAO telescopes has been updated, in line with TAC requirements.  The new LaTeX and style files are available here and must be used for all applications from 2013 QIV onwards.

Ongoing 1.9m power upgrades: affects observer interaction with slow motion drive

In April 2013, further upgrades were made to the power and control mechanisms of the 1.9-m telescope, incorporating a change in the control of the slow motion drive.  Observers will no longer switch power to the drive on/off at the electronics rack, but at a new control panel installed beside the TCS monitor in the warm room.

A number of other functions will be added to the panel in due course, but for the time being the slow motion drive is the only aspect of telescope use affected.  Use of the drive is explained in Chapter 2 of the Telescope and Spectrograph manual.

SpCCD spectral type library

David James (CTIO) has very kindly made his library of spectra obtained with the SAAO Cassegrain spectrograph available to the community to aid spectral classification.  The library can be viewed here, and a README file providing further information – together with the spectra in a variety of file types – can be downloaded from the ftp site.


The UCT CCD retires

From the end of 2012, the UCT CCD will no longer be offered on the SAAO telescopes.  We respectfully acknowledge its long service and significant contribution to variable star research, and ask that UCT CCD users look to the new SHOC cameras for high-speed photometry capabilities from now on.

New TAC & change of application deadlines

In November 2012, a Time Assessment Committee was appointed for the SAAO telescopes.  The deadlines for submission of telescope time applications have changed to accommodate this.  For further information, please read the announcement here.

1.0m mirror covers

The primary mirror covers of the 1.0-m were motorised in October 2012.  They are now operated by pushing a button on the primary mirror cell, where the handle used to be.

Wireless in the domes

For convenience, there are now wireless access points in the 1.9-m and 1.0-m domes.  Ethernet cables are still provided.

1.9m RA motor and control

In July 2012, a new RA fast motion motor was installed to improve efficiency and safety.  It is under PLC control to accommodate future moves toward remote operation. There is no change in the way the observer operates the telescope as a result of this upgrade.

1.9m mirror covers

As of June 2012, the mirror covers of the 1.9-m are no longer opened manually by turning the handle on the telescope.  They can be operated from the TCS, or by pushing a button on the telescope where the handle used to be.

Replacement gratings for the Cassegrain spectrograph – II

Grating 5 – the last of the new gratings – was mounted and aligned in February 2012.  All the new gratings (4, 5, 6 and 8) are now available for use.

1.0m pointing

The pointing model for the 1.0-m telescope was upgraded with new software in January 2012.  It is no longer necessary to apply different pointing zeropoints for different parts of the sky.


1.0m dome, windblind and fluorescents control

In November 2011, control of the dome windblind and upper fluorescent dome lights was transferred to PLC as part of an ongoing programme of upgrades.  Instead of the usual yellow paddle, observers should now use the new control box on the wall by the North pier to operate the dome and windblind.

Replacement gratings for the Cassegrain spectrograph – I

During the engineering week in October 2011 on the 1.9-m, the damaged diffraction gratings for the Cassegrain spectrograph were replaced.  Three new gratings were mounted and tested, replacing Gratings 4, 6 and 8.  The gratings are direct replacements, and the original names have been retained (e.g. the replacement for grating 4 is still called grating 4).  Wavelength ranges and resolutions can be found on this page.  The replacement for grating 5 is awaiting a new cell, and is currently unavailable.

1.9m pointing

Problems with the pointing of the 1.9-m telescope experienced over the past few months have been solved.  The pointing model was upgraded with new software during engineering time in October 2011.  The pointing is now accurate to within the 3×4 arcmin acquisition field of view.

SHOC commissioning

The Sutherland High-speed Optical Camera (SHOC) is being commissioned on the 1.9-m, 1.0-m and 0.75-m telescopes.  You can follow its progress on this page.

GIRAFFE Upgrades – I

In November 2011, a new pick-off mirror to direct light to the avalanche photodiode was installed on a precision stage on the bench-mounted GIRAFFE echelle spectrograph.  This has increased the APD counts by a factor of seven, thus improving the positioning of a star on the fibre.  (N.B. This has not directly improved the throughput to science camera.  Further upgrades are in the pipeline…)