“I can’t believe I’m seeing Saturn and the craters on the moon!” a visitor on the night sky tour at the Astronomical Observatory near Sutherland gazes through a 16-inch telescope, operated by astronomy guide Glenda Stoffels.

The same visitor asks Stoffels if she is an astronaut, but it matters not in the infinite wonder of life and the universe.

Just above the visitors’ viewing platform, life and the universe is being closely examined through a substantially larger, 11-metre telescope known as SALT.

Situated on a hilltop near the Karoo hamlet of Sutherland, SALT or the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) is the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere, with the power to look back 13-billion years, to the beginning of time.

Launched by former President Thabo Mbeki in November 2005, it puts South Africa at the forefront of 21st century scientific exploration with the good ship SALT navigating through spiral galaxies and gamma ray bursts to unknown lands.

“We didn’t have the horsepower to do this kind of stuff before, so, as they say, we can hunt with the big dogs now,” smiles Dave Laney, an astronomer with the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

SALT is unique because, amongst other things, it is designed to simultaneously record many different types of deep sky observations – from individual stars to galaxies – whereas most telescopes can only do one form of observation at a time. “So far we have simultaneously observed as many as 29 deep sky objects and we are working towards 100,” says Laney.

Its imaging camera – known as SALTICAM – a $600 000 digital camera – is designed to deliver deep space images. One of its first images was of an ancient cluster of several million stars known as ‘47 Tucanae’. Situated about 15 000 light-years from Earth the stars in 47 Tucanae are about 10-12 billion years old and rank amongst the oldest stars in our Milky Way

SALT’s spectrograph – known as the Robert Stobie spectrograph – has been capturing deep sky images in closely spaced wavelengths, delivering unprecedented detail. Currently being refined, the spectrograph will offer insights into the workings of our universe poised to revolutionise our understanding of life.

South Africa has always been a world leader in the understanding of life, with advanced astronomical research dating back 256 years. Our first observations were undertaken in the Cape by French scientist, Louis de la Caille, who, in 1751 charted the positions of 10 000 stars and 42 nebulae. (Nebulae are clouds of interstellar gas and dust that function as a nursery for the birth of new stars. Orion is the brightest nebula we can see with the naked eye, some 1300 light years from Earth.)

In 1820, a permanent observatory was established in Cape Town. It developed into the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) – which established a station in Sutherland in 1970.

“What most people don’t know is that African people were the first to study advanced astronomy,” says SAAO astronomer Thebe Medupe. “In southern Egypt 7000 years ago, they were already building observatories to study the movement of the sun.”

A few giant leaps later brings us to SALT – a project on which Medupe has colaborated from the outset – and which keeps Africa in the astronomical frontline.

“SALT will significantly boost South Africa’s internationally competitiveness, not only in astrophysics but also in many other fields – from the financial markets to the computer industry,” Medupe explains. “If I was not an astronomer I could fit well into the computer industry or the financial markets because part of my learning is in computation and modelling systems.”

Regarding SALT’s capacity to open new levels of insight about the workings of our universe, he says: “The deeper and earlier we can look back in space, the deeper and clearer we can examine (and hopefully one day understand) the beginnings of our universe. SALT is so powerful that from earth it can see a single candle flame on the moon, so you can appreciate its potential.”

But does it have the potential to detect other forms of intelligent life out there?

“Intelligent life out there – that eternal challenge,” ponders astronomer Laney. “Put it this way, I’d be amazed if there aren’t other forms of intelligent life out there. We think there is something amazingly different about us, but I have my doubts.”

Scientists now hypothesize there are billions of planets outside our solar system which ups the ratio of finding intelligent or extra-terrestrial life elsewhere.

From extra-terrestrials to black holes, space is the new frontier of technological and human potential and the study of astronomy and astrophysics is going to explode over the next couple of years.

By 2025, scientists want to put the first humans on Mars.

Whether this happens remains to be seen, but astrophysicists around the world are not nearly as interested in our ability to get to Mars as they are with what SALT reveals about universal conundrums like dark matter and dark energy.

Currently unable to explain about 96% of the universe – notably dark matter and dark energy – astrophysicists believe images and information gathered from SALT over the next couple of years may trigger a revolution more dramatic than the leap from Newtonian to quantum physics.

SALT will assist them to look deeper and more clearly into the dark heart of time and tackle unsolved questions about the universe and our place in it. This means giant leaps for not only those who make it to Mars, but for the whole of humankind.

As former President Mbeki said at the launch of SALT (in collaboration with William Shakespeare and Thomas Gray):

“This extraordinary construct of the human intellect … designed to probe the formation of the universe … is a place dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Its sole purpose is the discovery of the unknown and therefore the further liberation of humanity.

“Surely, this new journey will speak of a world made exciting by the rapid progression away from everything that is weary, stale, flat and unprofitable in human knowledge, the lifting of the dark and menacing shadows of ignorance and prejudice about the origin of the universe, that circumscribe our very ability to eat, live and think.

“I am especially privileged to command the Southern African Large Telescope to begin its work and focus its eye on the infinite and vibrant depths of outer space. Let the work begin!”

And so it is that our journey towards our alpha and our omega begins in the Great Karoo.

The reason SALT is in Sutherland is because it is one of a handful of locations in the world that is ideal for stargazing. Its remoteness, high elevation and the absence of pollution, delivers cold, cloudless, clear skies.

So clear that even with the naked eye, Sutherland’s night sky is a spreadsheet of stars. Here the human imagination soars deeper than ever before into space, towards the dark ages of our universe, before the first galaxies were born.

The emotion it conjures is the expectant silence before a grand symphony; the same silence you will experience when you journey through forgotten landscapes into the Great Karoo.

From the Matjiesfontein turnoff it’s a one-hour drive to Sutherland, winding ever-upwards through the Karoo highlands towards the star place on the edge of time.