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Africa’s potential is sky-high

Cape Argus

JOHN YELD

Environment & Science Writer

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Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, seen here with Musa Mtileni of the Agricultural Research Council, says the growing number of radio astronomy facilities on the continent should boost SAs bid for the SKA project.

DEVELOPING science education and expertise in African countries involved in the massive Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project will lead to a strong science and technology base for the continent which will have wider benefits for all, says an Oxford University astronomy professor.

Pedro Ferreira, professor of astrophysics and a Tutorial Fellow at Oxford’s Oriel College, was one of several international experts in South Africa last week for a workshop sponsored by SKA South Africa on capacity building for science and engineering technology, relating to radio astronomy development on the continent.

South Africa and its eight African partners – Namibia, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique and Zambia – are competing with Australia for the chance to host the giant SKA radio telescope that will be the most powerful of its kind yet constructed, allowing astronomers to see back close to the origin of time at the “Big Bang”.

With an estimated construction cost of e1.5 billion (R14.8bn) and work due to start in 2016, SKA “promises to revolutionise science by answering some of the most fundamental questions that remain about the origin, nature and evolution of the universe”.

The workshop also shared updates on SKA – a final site decision is due next year – and on the status of MeerKAT, Africa’s SKA prototype or pathfinder project that is also an extremely powerful radio telescope in its own right.

The 30-odd delegates included scientists and astronomers from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in the US, the US-based National Society for Black Physicists, the director of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and South Africa’s Kevin Govender, director of the South Africa-based IAU Global Office of Astronomy for Development.

Kim de Boer, manager of SKA SA’s human capital development programme, said African partner countries had been involved since 2003 “and as a result of their interest in SKA, some universities have become excited about astronomy and engineering programmes”.

The University of Nairobi was attracting a lot of students, and the University of Madagascar was in the process of setting up an undergraduate course in astronomy, she said. At the University Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, lecturer Claudio Moises Paulo, who was sponsored by SKA for his Honours and Master’s degrees in South Africa, had initiated undergraduate courses in astrophysics.

“So academics are really keen to get involved in SKA engineering and science education,” she said.

The SKA Africa working group committee, which includes members from all nine partner states, had been asked by academics to help them expand undergraduate programmes and to facilitate a workshop on how to promote astronomy development. The response to the workshop had been “overwhelming”, de Boer added.

She said the workshop was held in Carnarvon because delegates had wanted to visit the Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT), which is Africa’s precursor or pathfinder instrument for the SKA, but which is in its own right already one of largest and most powerful radio telescopes in the world.

Ferreira said he believed the workshop had been “a great success” – “It just shows the potential to do radio astronomy in Africa.”

The idea of building a radio telescope using dishes placed in a number of African countries was “a wonderful example of attempting to combine good science with pragmatic solutions for the continent,” he added.

“I really believe that if you focus on understanding and answering the big questions, good things follow. In this case, as a result of wanting to map out the universe, we need to develop science education and expertise in a number of African countries. This must lead to a strong science and technology base for the continent with wider benefits for everyone.”

Geoffrey Okeng’o of the University of Nairobi, the first Kenyan to be trained as a professional astrophysicist who obtained his Master’s degree jointly through UWC and UCT, said: “I can confidently say that I was quite impressed by the progress made by both the SA SKA and most of the partner countries in human capital development and for the realisation of SKA Africa.

“The South African government has particularly made very good progress, not only in the construction of MeerKAT and in specifying the science topics that MeerKAT and the SKA will answer, but also in uniting the various African partner countries to ensure that Africa wins the (SKA) bid.”

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