The establishment of the Sutherland site was a joint venture between the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Science Research Council of Great Britain (SRC). The two governments began cost-sharing negotiations in 1968, with the outcome coming to fruition in 1970. A site in Sutherland was then founded to relocate the research facilities of the Royal Observatory Cape of Good Hope and the Republic Observatory. The advisory committee of the newly established South African Astronomical Observatory comprised equal nominees from both entities with the executive chairman coming from the South African CSIR. Their main responsibility was to advise the Observatory on operations. Both the Royal Observatory in Cape Town and the Republic Observatory in Johannesburg were challenged by city lights and air pollution as a result of developments around their observing sites hence the move to Sutherland. The Royal Observatory’s situation was worsened by the erection of a football stadium with night-time games blasting its floodlights, making it impossible for any astronomy observations to be done.
When Sir Richard Woolley became director of the newly formed South African Astronomical Observatory on 1 January 1972, his main task was to hire a new workforce and to ensure that the Sutherland station was operational, and his personal interest was continuing his research. True to intentions and plans, it took only two years for the Sutherland site to be operational, from its founding in March 1970, to building the following year, and then to the handover of the site by contractors in September 1972. The first telescope to arrive was the 0.5m from the Republic Observatory, Johannesburg. The telescope began observing in August 1972. Later in November 1972, the 1m telescope from the Royal Observatory Cape of Good Hope was added into the fold.
The launch of the Sutherland Observatory on 15 March 1973 was deemed a “very scientific occasion” by the Minister of Planning and the Environment, J.J. Loots. The importance of the event mainly hinged on the new purpose of the Observatory in research and the development of astronomy in the country. During his speech the Prime Minister of the Republic of South Africa, B.J. Voster said, “We are anxious to develop South African interest in astronomy and astrophysics because we believe that research into abstract science is healthy and indeed vital to the progress of our universities.” He continued to say that the South African government had entered into an agreement with the British Science Research Council to encourage overseas astronomers to come to South Africa for work because of the belief that, “the presence of men of highest scientific eminence such as our guests today is of utmost benefit not only to astronomy but to all other sciences and to the universities and the nation as a whole.”
Light pollution was a terrible affliction for the Royal Observatory in Cape Town, and some of its projects were halted as a result. With the newly established site in Sutherland, a resumption of photoelectric photometry became a possibility and it was included among the new research focus areas. What was lacking in Cape Town was the reliable determination of magnitudes and colours of faint stars; the promise of dark skies in Sutherland revived the interest. New instrument techniques were going to be added to advance these plans and to achieve the desired outcomes. Among these techniques was electronographic photometry, whose purpose was to provide much-needed efficiency in resolving magnitudes and colours of faint stars.
According to Dr. Ian Glass, “The electronographic imaging technique looked very promising for a few years around the late 1960s and 1970s. One kind of tube called the McGee “Spectracon” was used for taking spectra and another kind, the “McMullan Camera”, was used for imaging clusters where photometry of several objects was needed. Several observatories tried them out with modest success. At the time, photography was the normal method for making images.” Photographic photometry was added as a complementary technique that would advance the study of much larger areas of the sky at any given time.
A spectrograph was fitted on the 1m reflector to provide radial velocity measurements of stars (measuring the pace at which an object is moving away or towards Earth). This instrument was used on bright moon days when photometry work was impossible. Historically, the Royal Observatory was one of the first Observatories in the Southern Hemisphere to do spectroscopic studies but had to stop when its 61cm refractor was used for other work. While the Sutherland station rekindled old research pursuits, time allocation was of great importance to ensure the site did not become a white elephant. Part of the observation time was to be allocated to South African Astronomical Observatory staff, while the remaining portion would be given to astronomers sponsored by the British Science Research Council as well as the South African Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. At the time of the launch some expressions of interest in time allocation had been received from Northern Hemisphere astronomers. These requests gave the partners the confidence and the nod they most needed to consider the site viable and worthy.
While South Africa had many observatories in different cities, there was a lack of significant impact on astronomy development at universities except for the University of Cape Town (UCT). It was then hoped that just like UCT, which had already made substantial use of the Sutherland Observatory, other universities would in time develop an interest in Sutherland. To accomplish Prime Minister B.J. Voster’s aspirations, the new Observatory had plans to open up new frontiers of research to postgraduate university students with the intention that the research would trickle down to undergraduate work as well. Overall the worth of the site depended on its envisioned role in developing astronomy and its positive contribution to reigniting scientific curiosity among the younger generation.