South Africa: Bill To Help Clear Skies For Stargazers

Last Updated: 13 December 2007
Article by Adam Gunn

An interesting bill, the Draft Astronomy Geographic Advantage Bill, has been released for public comment. The science and technology department has indicated that the bill will be introduced to Parliament this year.

The bill aims to provide for the preservation and protection of a re a s in SA uniquely suited for optical and radio astronomy and to provide for intergovernmental co-operation and public consultation on matters concerning nationally significant astronomy advantage areas.

SA has in the past capitalised on its ideal conditions for viewing the skies of the southern hemisphere, and more recently the old observatories have been replaced by modern telescopes.

The largest is the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere.

SALT boasts a hexagonal mirror array 11m in diameter. Though sim - ilar to the Hobby-Eberly telescope in Texas, SALT has a unique optical system using more of the mirror array. It is able to record distant stars, galaxies and quasars a billion times too faint to be seen with the unaided eye — as faint as a candle flame at the distance of the moon.

The construction of SALT was completed and funded by a consortium of international partners from SA, the US, Germany, Poland, the UK, and New Zealand.

SALT has already produced some significant observations of distant outer-space objects and relies to a great extent on the clarity of the night skies where it is situated.

The aim of the bill is probably to protect the integrity of viewing conditions around telescopes such as SALT. A major focus of the bill is to prevent light pollution in areas deemed to be astronomy advantage areas. Light pollution is defined as "any effect from artificially created or harnessed light that is visible to the naked eye or can be detected with astronomical instrumentation at night such as sky-glow, glare, light trespass and light clutter which affects astronomy and includes the effect of street lighting, outdoor security lights, laser promotional lights or self-lit billboards".

This is of general significance too as in many instances parties have alleged that light pollution from developments is an actionable source of pollution. However, there has never before been a statutory definition of light pollution.

The bill also defines interference sources as including equipment capable of emitting electromagnetic waves and including lasers, light sources, computers, signal processes, radio transmission equipment and cables, lighting equipment, electric powered machinery and other electrical, optical and electronic equipment.

Another interesting facet of the legislation is that it identifies areas suited as astronomy advantage areas as those which have a low population density.

Under the bill, the minister responsible for science and technology is given the power to declare any area or part of an area (in Northern Cape) as an astronomy advantage area provided that no such declaration may be made in respect of any area demarcated in terms of the Municipal Demarcation Act as falling within the boundaries of the municipality, Sol Plaatje.

The minister may also designate any other area provided that no such designation be made in respect of an area which has been demarcated in terms of the Municipal Demarcation Act as falling within the boundaries of the Category A municipality, and declare any such designated area as an astronomy advantage area.

During the process of having an area declared an astronomy advantage area, the bill provides for a public participation process.

The minister also has the power to withdraw any such declaration made under the bill.

Once an area has been so designated, the minister must in writing notify the Registrar of Deeds who must record it. Certain astronomy advantage areas are protected to a certain level (18 500m above the highest point in the area) from overflight of aircraft. Section 23 of the bill says that the minister may declare certain activities prohibited in core or central astronomy advantage areas. The bill lists certain examples of such activities as prospecting or mining, harmful industrial processes, and the construction and development of new business, residential or recreational facilities.

Section 23 further provides that if the activity has already commenced, compensation may be payable. An offence is punishable by a fine not exceeding R1m or to a period in jail not exceeding five years, or both.

The bill introduces some far-reaching antidevelopment concepts which will be a bonus to anyone seeking a wilderness and astronomical experience.

One only has to think of the Palabora mine next to the Kruger National Park to realise that light pollution can be a severe issue. The bill leaves many questions unanswered, such as exactly how landowners will be compensated if development is prohibited on their land and how the legislation will overlap with the National Environmental Management Act and the environmental impact assessment regulations.

The bill also does not address how application is to be made to the minister should parties wish to have a specific area declared as an astronomical advantage area.

Further, the bill aims to declare areas of low population density preferential areas, but does not go on to address issues of conflict.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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