The first antenna of the MeerKAT radio telescope was launched outside Carnarvon in the Northern Cape in March 2014. The 64-dish MeerKAT is a pathfinder telescope which is part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world's biggest radio telescope. File picture: GCIS/SAPA
The first antenna of the MeerKAT radio telescope was launched outside Carnarvon in the Northern Cape in March 2014. The 64-dish MeerKAT is a pathfinder telescope which is part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world's biggest radio telescope. File picture: GCIS/SAPA

An African mission to beyond the stars

By OWN Correspondent Time of article published May 31, 2021

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Armed with a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics, Dr Charles Mpho Takalana is on a mission to popularise astronomy across the length and breadth of Africa.

One of only a few black astronomers in South Africa, Takalana, who obtained his PhD in 2020 from the University of the Witwatersrand may have his head in the clouds or in this case, the starry skies, but he is firmly rooted in the African continent and deeply passionate about sharing his enthusiasm with Africa’s young people.

“We need to invest more in human capital and citizen science. In this Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is important that we equip our young people with science and mathematics to become leaders on the continent and to be in a position to play a pivotal role in the greater development of the continent.”

As Head of the Secretariat of the African Astronomical Society (AfAS), a Pan-African professional society for astronomers, Takalana’s main mission is to contribute to the vision of creating a globally competitive and collaborative astronomy community in Africa. He wants to be a voice for astronomy on the continent and contribute to addressing the challenges faced by Africa through the promotion and advancement of astronomy.

“I hope to increase the footprint of astronomy in Africa by contributing to the use of astronomy to attract African youth into Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers and ensuring that an organisation such as AfAS continues to support collaborative international astronomical activities and projects in Africa," he said.

His passion started at a young age. A naturally curious child, with a love of nature, his imagination took him beyond the clouds.

Dr Charles Mpho Takalana has a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics.

“I was curious about the origin of everything we see around us and how the Universe itself works. I was fascinated by stars before I could even say the word “star”. I wanted to know about the big picture. Growing up I also loved watching any television show that had to do with space or astronomy.”

The more he discovered, the more engrossed he became.

“The stars became more than just objects that lit up the sky; they became living beings,” said Takalana.

However, his achievement was no walk in the park. It took a lot of hard work, determination and commitment, coupled with a passion for mathematics and science in general.

“When I got to university my fascination for astronomy became my passion, and I was determined to make it my profession.”

His wish is to change the common misconception that astronomy is blue sky research that takes place in ivory towers.

“There are real everyday benefits.The impact of astronomy on the world can be seen in the spin-offs it generates, from medical equipment and imaging techniques to pushing the limits of computing and the birth of Wi-Fi, which is critical in keeping communities connected. Recently, astronomy has started changing the way we do tourism and created new economic opportunities. We should draw inspiration from all of this because it stems from human curiosity.”

As he continues to talk about megascience initiatives driven by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) that are propelling long-held dreams into reality, one sees that South Africa is indeed a country of possibilities.

In 2012, South Africa and Australia won the bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the world’s biggest radio telescope.

“I was excited about this project and how it would put our country on the map, and I wanted to be part of the success story that would push the boundaries of human knowledge about the universe and how it works. I also realised how this big project in a country with a history like ours would make a difference – leave a legacy for maths and science, bring up great scientists in the future and transform the face of science in our country.”

His hard work saw him receiving funding from the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) for his undergraduate and PhD studies, as part of the SARAO Young Professionals Development Programme. This allowed him to study towards his doctorate while working in secondment at the DSI.

“I appreciate my time at the DSI, and I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to grow and learn more about the astronomy landscape, strategy and policies in South Africa, and how from these we can derive benefits for our African nation. This experience fuelled my desire to serve the African astronomy community and contribute to the field’s growth,” he said.

Takalana’s research focused on data analysis techniques for differential observation of the low-frequency radio cosmological background that probes the physics of reionization, the cosmic Dark Ages, and the Epoch of Recombination.

His thesis presented an analytical approach to studying the cosmology of the Dark Ages and subsequent Epoch of Reionization, which are very early epochs in the history of the universe.

He believes the level of astronomy and the required infrastructure in South Africa is already world-class.

To maintain the momentum, the country needs to support innovators, continue to work towards addressing issues of transformation and create an inclusive environment that will attract and retain more young African people in the field of astronomy.

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