The South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) is a national facility of the National Research Foundation (NRF), which in turn operates under the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI). Approximately 181 staff members have been employed at SAAO since 2019, while around 32 students are being supervised by astronomers on site. SAAO is the national centre for optical and infrared astronomy in South Africa. Its primary function is to conduct fundamental research in astronomy and astrophysics, while also promoting astronomy and astrophysics in Southern Africa.

The headquarters of SAAO’s is located in the suburb of Observatory in Cape Town. Its history dates back to 1820 when the main building was constructed, making it one of the oldest permanent structures in Cape Town. Owing to light and air pollution in the city, research observations take place at SAAO’s Sutherland site in the Karoo semi-desert region. Nevertheless, some of the historical telescopes in Cape Town are still used for outreach and public events. Open nights are held every second and fourth Saturday of each month and comprise a public lecture, a tour of the SAAO Museum and a stargazing session. The Cape Town site is also one of the last remaining places close to the city centre where the original ecology of the area is preserved. Its low-lying portions are subject to occasional flooding and support a wide range of bird and animal life as well as a variety of flowering bulbous plants. The grounds mark the northern limit of the Western Leopard Toad (Amietophrynus pantherinus), an endangered species, and it is the only remaining habitat of the rare iris Moraea Aristata.

The Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD, hosted by SAAO) is a joint project of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the NRF with the support of the DSI. Since 2013, the OAD has granted over €700 000 to more than 140 astronomy-for-development projects across the globe. The OAD leverages astronomy, in all its aspects, and is guided by the United Nations ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ to work towards a vision of “astronomy for a better world”.

SAAO’s main research telescopes (the Southern African Large Telescope included) are located at the observing site 15 km from the small Karoo town of Sutherland in the Northern Cape, a 4-hour drive from Cape Town. On a hill-top, 1800 metres above sea level and far from Cape Town’s city lights, stand 24 telescopes of various sizes and forms, some owned by SAAO and some hosted for international research institutes. These telescopes give astronomers in South Africa and all over the world access to our exceptionally dark skies. The site is ideally placed in longitude between the other large optical observatories of the southern hemisphere (in Chile and Australia) and allows continuous coverage for time-critical observations.

Visa requirements

The IATA offers an interactive page with visa and passport requirements. Please make sure that your passport is valid (doesn’t expire too soon) and has sufficiently many empty pages. We urge potential applicants of the school to apply for a passport as soon as possible.

Kindly note that the above is for information only and does not constitute legal advice. We strongly recommend you double-check requirements with your travel agent or a South African embassy. Please see the Department of Home Affairs’ website for more details

Upon notification of the successful applicants, we will request a copy of your passport after which we will supply you with all the necessary documentation needed for the visa application (i.e. letter of invitation, flight ticket, travel insurance and proof of accommodation).

Yellow Fever Certificate

A Yellow Fever vaccination certificate is required for travellers coming from – or who are in airport transit for more than 12 hours within – a country with a risk of Yellow Fever transmission. The certificate only becomes valid 10 days after vaccination and stays valid for the duration of the life of the person vaccinated. If you’ve travelled in a yellow fever region, six days before you wish to visit South Africa, you’ll have to show your yellow fever certificate when you enter the country.

Transport and Accommodation

A shuttle service is being arranged, where the driver will meet each lecturer/student at the arrival gate of the airport. The shuttle will be used to transport the participants to the provided accommodation upon arrival. A shuttle service will once again be provided to safely deliver the participants back to the airport when they are due to depart. More details will be sent out shortly once all the arrangements have been finalized.

The ISYA pays for the accommodation. Transport will be provided between the accommodation and SAAO each morning and night for the duration of the school.
The lecturers will be staying at the City Lodge Hotel Pinelands, Cape Town.
The students will be divided up between the Green Elephant Backpackers and Campus Key. Rooms will be assigned randomly and some of the rooms will be shared.

For the Sutherland portion of the school, both the lecturers and students will be staying at the Sutherland Hotel. Transport will also be provided between the Hotel and the Sutherland Observatory

Weekend Activities

We will arrange rest and recreational activities in and around Cape Town to take place on the weekends. These activities will be weather dependent. We will strive to make these activities as inclusive as possible. Potential places we aim to visit are listed below:

Safety measures

  • The SAAO venue is access controlled with security stationed at the entrance. All vehicles are scanned before being provided access to the premises.
  • For safety reasons, the school will collect all the school participants (lecturers and students) at the provided accommodation each morning after breakfast and transport them to SAAO. The participants will also be collected from SAAO and transported back to the provided accommodation each evening.
  • The LOC does not recommend making use of the public transport system in Cape Town. This included trains and taxi (minibus) services.
  • Uber services are widely available in Cape Town and safe to use. But always make sure you verify the identity of the driver and the license plate of the car against that provided on the Uber app, BEFORE getting into any vehicles.
  • Keep any valuables hidden away when out in public and always be aware of your surroundings.
  • When going out, we strongly advise you to do so in a group.
  • A few extra tips can be found here to keep you safe in Cape Town.
  • Have easy access to safety tips while you’re traveling by downloading these resources to your cellphone.
  • This handy brochure also contains valuable emergency contact numbers along with more safety tips. The Covid-19 restrictions, specifically related to mask-wearing in public and testing, are no longer applicable.