Astronomy across Africa

Posted by Korey Haynes
on Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Artist's rendition of the planned SKA dishes in Africa. // photo by SKA Organization

Hello, world! I'm the newest addition to the Astronomy staff, and I'm happy to be at the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) this week in Seattle, covering all that's late-breaking or up and coming in the world of astronomy. It's the latter sort of news that caught my attention today.

When you think of the top countries in astronomy research, African nations probably aren't the first that spring to mind. But South Africa in particular is looking to change that, and they're bringing their neighboring countries along for the ride.

The South African Large Telescope (SALT) already ranks among the largest in the world, and is a premier facility for optical spectroscopy. The upcoming SKA (Square Kilometre Array) will be a radio telescope array with stations across nine different countries in Africa (as well as sites in Australia), and Namibia is a strong contender for an upcoming gamma-ray observatory, the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA). Namibia is already the site of another gamma-ray observatory, the High Energy Stereoscopic System (H.E.S.S.), and a precursor to SKA called MeerKAT is currently under construction in South Africa. It's not quite the telescopic density of, say, Mauna Kea's 12 telescopes on one mountain in Hawaii, but it's impressive nonetheless.

But that's only half the excitement. Most of the largest observatories in the world are multinational efforts, both in terms of who pays for the instruments to be built and in who gets access to the finished product. Collaboration lets partner countries share the costs of building expensive observatories and also allows different research groups to share ideas and the training of new students. For a country like Nigeria, which has struggled to build an astronomical force large enough just to lobby their government for funds, these collaborations are vital if they are to grow their science communities. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) has partnered with South African students in astronomy research projects, and various Canadian universities are running workshops with college students and teachers from Nigeria and Ghana to build partnerships, train teachers, and learn how to better teach science concepts. It's a global effort, and the collaborations between African nations are also strong.

The common goals across the series of talks on this subject at AAS were building a community of trained and experienced astronomers in and across Africa so that they can conduct their own science. Africa is primed to have quite a few amazing observatories in the next decade, and when these telescopes see first light, African astronomers plan to be ready.

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