Seeing in the International Year of Astronomy 2009 in Style

13 November 2008

The South African Astronomical Observatory in Sutherland opens its doors to the public for the entire night of New Year's Eve 2008!

For the first time in the long history of the South African Astronomical Observatory in Sutherland, members of the public will be allowed access to the telescopes (including the world famous Southern African Large Telescope, or SALT) in this otherwise restricted research area for one entire night - new year's eve 2008! As word of this decision leaked out, astronomy enthusiasts from all over the country, recognizing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, have already begun planning their trips to this small town in the Northern Cape, which has for a long time carried a "stellar" reputation.

"We have decided to go ahead and dedicate the use of the observatory on the night of 31st December 2008 to a public event in Sutherland" said Prof Phil Charles, director of the observatory. "This is in recognition of the significance of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 and the importance of encouraging and enhancing the public's participation in astronomy"

The locals in Sutherland have also rallied together to make this an unforgettable celebration. Guest house owners, community development workers, the local municipality, as well as members of the community, have all joined forces to host a Sutherland New Year's celebration like no other.

The week long build up to 2009 kicks off on Boxing Day with free daytime tours to the observatory (including SALT) every-hour-on-the-hour, culminating in the now very popular "Essential Astronomy" presentation and Q&A every afternoon with astronomers. This 2-hour presentation is aimed at absolutely everyone, no matter what your knowledge or background, and is guaranteed to change your perspective of the universe. Also, every evening for that week there will be guided stargazing through visitor telescopes, where people can get a taste of the impeccable Sutherland skies, reputed to be so clear that on a moonless night one can walk around comfortably just by the starlight.

On the evening of New Year's Eve, a large (but restricted) number of people will be allowed onto the observatory plateau to set up their telescopes, long exposure cameras, deck chairs and sleeping bags - whatever they wish to bring (except for alcohol of course - a standard restriction in the telescope domes due to the risks to sensitive equipment). From this spectacular vantage point they will enjoy the last sunset of 2008. During the night they will have access to both the research telescopes and visitor facilities, but most importantly to the amazing night sky at one of the world's best astronomical sites. Then, after welcoming the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) at midnight, and a little more stargazing, they will experience the first sunrise of 2009 from what has often been described to feel like the top of the world.

But all this is just what will be happening at the observatory itself. In the meantime, 18km away, the little town of Sutherland will come alive that week with music, parties, food stalls and events, as well as portable telescopes. Visitors will have the choice of staying in guest houses, hostel accommodation or even camping sites. Sutherland has tourists visiting all year round and is well equipped to cater for everyone's needs - no doubt this event will have the town bursting at the seams though.

Note that space is limited! To keep the number of people at the research telescopes to a manageable amount, bookings are essential and a standard fee will apply. All funds raised above the cost of the event will go towards the education and outreach programmes conducted by the observatory. Watch the IYA2009 website for booking details (

Kevin Govender
IYA2009 SPoC - South Africa


Organisational Associates:

The International Year of Astronomy 2009 is endorsed by the United Nations and the International Council of Science.