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South Africa reaches for the stars

New space agency aims to build giant telescopes and launch satellites.

The southern hemisphere's largest telescope — the Southern African large telescope (Salt) — is near the small town of Sutherland in South Africa's arid Karoo region. Here it is under construction with 11 mirrors of the 91 that were installed. Salt, which measures 36 feet in diameter, is a massive hexagon filled with smaller mirrored hexagons. The giant telescope enables scientists to view stars and galaxies a billion times too faint to be visible to the naked eye. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — While the sole ambition of many countries is to salvage their floundering economies, South Africa is taking a bold step that it hopes will raise its international profile: the creation of its own space agency.

“We want to create a new vision of South Africa and Africa as a place where you can do world-class and world-leading science and technology,” said Bernie Fanaroff, who is leading South Africa's bid to be the site for the construction of the world's largest telescope, the Square Kilometer Array.

The move is part of South Africa’s goal to move away from an economy based on the exploitation of resources, such as gold and diamonds, and transform itself into an economy based on a highly skilled population. Space science and technology is one of the main components of its strategy, along with climate science, energy security and pharmaceutical research.

By 2018, South Africa aims to generate more than half of its national income from knowledge-based industries and increase the number of its patent applications.

South Africa's space agency, which was authorized by President Kgalema Motlanthe earlier this year and is to be set up before the end of 2009, will hardly compete with the likes of the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration or the European Space Agency, but it will nonetheless oversee several ambitious projects, including the bid for the Square Kilometer Array telescope and the launching of satellites.

South Africa’s focus on space dates back to 1685, when Dutch colonists established an observatory. More recently, in 1999, SUNSAT, South Africa’s first satellite, was launched by NASA. In 2002, Mark Shuttleworth, a South African entrepreneur, became one of the world's first space tourists when he paid $20 million to join a Soyuz mission to the International Space Station.

In 2005, South Africa completed the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, the Southern African Large Telescope (Salt), which has a 33-foot-wide mirror. The telescope was modeled after the Hobby-Ebberly Telescope at the McDonald Observatory in Texas. Funded in part by the United States and several other countries, the Salt now operates with a number of scientific partners, including several American universities.