Astronomers involved with the project hope to use a lightweight multi-segment design similar to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) in Texas, which cost only about 20 per cent of what it would cost to build a traditional telescope of the same size. The HET board has agreed to make available the detailed plans for its telescope in return for observing time on SALT . The new telescope will give South African astronomers facilities comparable with those in South America and Australia for the first time in decades.

The primary mirror of SALT will be a giant hexagon containing approximately 90 segments. Each five centimetre thick segment will be independently controlled by computer to reduce the effect of atmospheric turbulence on observations. The telescope will use spectroscopic techniques to study the early universe, quasars and galaxy populations, and to search for new planets.

South Africa has a long tradition in astronomy due to the superb southern night skies overhead. However, this tradition has suffered because of the refusal of international partners to form collaborative projects, and a lack of investment in infrastructure during the apartheid era. SALT could well reverse this trend.