Mbeki unveils continent's eye on the sky

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The Southern Africa Large Telescope (Salt) can gather more than 25 times as much light as any other telescope in Africa, allowing studies of the most distant galaxies and of objects such as asteroids and comets.

Thabo Mbeki, the South African President, said: "Even those of us who know nothing about astronomy have awaited this day with great anticipation, feeling, perhaps instinctively, that this giant eye in the Karoo would tell us as yet unknown and exciting things about ourselves."

Scientists hope the telescope will give them insight into what kind of worlds orbit other suns; how the stars in nearby galaxies differ from those in the solar system, and provide clues about the scale and age of the universe.

The project cost $20m (£11.5m), funded mainly by South Africa, in partnership with universities in the United States, Britain, Germany, New Zealand and Poland, which will be able to share the fruits of the research via the internet.