South  African Astronomical Observatory (S.A.A.O.)

Initially known as Combined South African Observatories. (CSAO)
1968 – present
Note: The headquarters is situated in the premises of the old
Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope, whilst the most important instruments are housed at Sutherland.

Sutherland Observatory. (Source: Smits [unpublished])

Photo Gallery:
Head Office Building.
Head Office Terrain.
Sutherland Domes.
Sutherland Terrain.

Current Information:
Current  Information:
Director: Theodore B (Ted) Williams
Telephone no.: [+2721] (021) 447 0025
Fax no.: [+2721] (021) 447 3639
P.R.O. e-mail:
Physical address:
Head Office:
SAAO, Observatory Road, Observatory, Cape Town, South Africa.
Postal address: SAAO, P.O. Box 9 Observatory Cape Town 7935 South Africa
SAAO – Cape Town:
Latitude:33degrees 56′ 03.5″ South
Longitude: 1h 13m 54.6s East
SAAO – Sutherland:
Latitude:33degrees 56′ 03.5″ South
Longitude:1h 13m 54.6s East
Altitude:1 750 m above sea level (5 741 ft)

In Brief:
Noted  for:
Light pollution is an International problem, and in the 1960’s three of South Africa’s Observatories were badly affected by light pollution. They were the Cape Observatory (Cape Town), Radcliffe Observatory (Pretoria) and Republic Observatory (Johannesburg). By an agreement between the South African CSIR and the British Science Research Council (23 September 1970), a new facility was created away from light pollution at Sutherland in the Karoo. The main instruments from the Cape and Republic Observatories were moved to the new sight, and the Cape Observatory grounds became the headquarters for the new South African Observatories (today the South African Astronomical Observatory S.A.A.O.)
Radcliffe Observatory closed down, and its 74-inch telescope was bought and moved to Sutherland.
Thus the original Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope metamorphed into a new entity, the S.A.A.O., which for reasons of convenience and space will be dealt with in this website as a separate establishment.

Historical background:


  • Due to growing light pollution problems in the major cities, good seeing conditions became a major problem for South Africa’s Astronomical Observatories. The logical step for the time was  to amalgamate the major Observatories into one, and move the instruments to a dark site away from the major cities. [S.A.A.O., pp. 2 – 4.]
  • The idea to create a joint venture was first suggested in 1968,  with the consequent sharing in cost. The main players in the joint  venture were the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial  Research (CSIR); and the Science Research Council of Great Britain (SRC). [S.A.A.O., pp. 2 – 4.]
  • An  agreement was reached in 1970 to develop a joint South  African – British Observatory. It was decided to close down the Royal Observatory in Cape Town, and the Republic Observatory in Johannesburg, and amalgamate the two Observatories. [S.A.A.O., pp. 2 – 4.]
  • Sutherland in the Karoo was chosen as the site for the new venture after an extensive site-testing programme. South Africa has two areas  that are extremely good for astronomical studies, namely the Karoo  and the Highveld. However, South Africa has two major climatic regions, with the Karoo affected by winter rainfall and the Highveld by summer rainfall. This means that each one of these areas is good during its dry season, but certain stars will be difficult to study because of the wet season. The site-testing programme narrowed the favourable sites down to a narrow strip of the south – western Karoo, which have an excellent number of clear hours distributed throughout the whole year. [S.A.A.O., p.4.]
  • In 1972 it was decided to close Radcliffe Observatory (Pretoria). This facility had only one telescope, the 74  inch that was at the time the largest telescope in South Africa. In 1974 this telescope was moved to Sutherland.  [Moore, p.119.]
  • In 1972 the South African Astronomical Observatory was founded. (Officially?) [Smits]
  • The site at Sutherland was officially opened in March 1973,  by Mrs Margaret Thatcher, then Minister of Science in the  U.K., and Mr B.J. Vorster, Prime Minister of South Africa.  [Smits]
  • Besides the telescope domes, there are also offices, a technical building, library, staff residences, and a 14 bedroom hostel for visiting  Astronomers.
  • On  15 November 2000 the Infrared Survey Facility (IRSF) was opened. This is a joint project between S.A.A.O. and Nagoya University, Japan. The telescope is a specially constructed 1.4-m  telescope fitted with the SIRIUS camera.
  • South  African Large Telescope (S.A.L.T).  The largest telescope in South Africa with an 11-m mirror. The  telescope is a joint venture between;
    S.A.A.O., South Africa
    Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Centre in Poland
    Hobby-Eberley telescope board, USA
    Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA
    Georg-August Universitat, Germany
    University of Wisconson-Madison, USA
    Carnegi-Mellon University, USA
    New Zealand University of Canterbury
    University of North Carolina, USA
    UK / Irish Consortium
  • The facilities created at Sutherland have proved useful for other  sciences as well. A tunnel was built for seismological observations by the Geological Survey. [S.A.A.O., p.4.]


List of Directors at S.A.A.O.:

  • Richard  van der Riet Woolley. 1971 – 1974. He became the first Director. Sir Richard was Astronomer Royale of Britain, and took over the  post on retirement from Greenwich.
  • Michael  Feast: 1974 – March 1992. He joined S.A.A.O. from Radcliffe
  • Bob  Stobie: April 1992 – May 2002. He was previously deputy Director of  the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. Stobie was the great drive  behind the S.A.L.T. project until his untimely death in 2002.
  • Patricia Anne Whitelock was acting director during June 2002 – November 2003
  • Peter Martinez was acting director during December 2003 – September 2004
  • Philip A. Charles: Director October 2004 – August 2011
  • Patricia Anne Whitelock 2012
  • Theodore B (Ted) Williams January 2013 – Current

Deputy at S.A.A.O.:

  • George Harding: Mr Harding was not a Director, but “officer  in charge” of the Cape Observatory during the change  over period from Cape Observatory to Combined South African Observatories (S.A.A.O.). He became deputy of S.A.A.O. under van  der Riet Woolley


Research/public  service

  • Photometric  astronomy: which consist of photoelectric observations, electronography and photographic photometry. [S.A.A.O., pp.4 – 8]
  • Spectroscopy.
  • Infrared  Survey Facility (IRSF)


Note: Existing instruments that were taken over used to be referred to by their names e.g. Elizabeth telescope, or by their diameter in  inches, eg. 40 inch telescope. A few years prior to the creation  of S.A.A.O. South Africa converted to the decimal system. In documentation from this era onwards the telescopes are referred to by their diameter in the decimal system, e.g. 100-cm telescope. All the above examples refer to the same instrument.

Instruments at Sutherland:

Instruments at Observatory, Cape Town:


Pictorial  Sources:


  • Laing, J.D. (ed.), The Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope, 1820 – 1970, A Sesquicentennial Offering, Published by The Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope (Cape Town), 1970. [Note: The British Science Research  Council threaten to close the observatory down. This publication was written as a Public Relations  exercise to show the world the value of the institution. It was never intended to be a historical document.]
  • Moore, P. & Collins, P., Astronomy in Southern Africa, p (General Source)
  • The  South African Astronomical Observatory.
    (Publication of SAAO, no author, no date

Interesting External Links: