From Rusana Philander in Cape Town for TZ Business News.
The nine African countries who are partners in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN) projects are making significant progress.
The 5th Ministerial Forum Meeting on the SKA/AVN was recently held in Cape Town, South Africa. It was attended by ministers and senior officials responsible for science and technology. The partner countries are: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Mauritius, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia.
Member countries highlighted financial constraints as a major obstacle to the full rollout of the AVN project, but said that progress was being made. They particularly welcomed the positive results of the SKA Human Capital Development (HCD) programme. Up till now 127 students from partner countries have benefitted from the HCD initiative, out of a total of 136 from Africa as a whole. From these students 14 graduated with honours, 32 with master’s and 24 with doctoral degrees.
According the South African Department of Science and Technology another initiative was started to develop radio astronomy capacity in partner countries, namely the Development in Africa through Radio Astronomy (DARA) programme. DARA was specifically designed to support the African SKA and AVN projects and it is making valuable contributions to strengthen radio astronomy in partner countries. It is funded by South Africa and the United Kingdom (through the Newton Fund), DARA undertakes numerous projects, including running Linux and Python training for science and engineering postgraduate students at South Africa’s Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC). The courses are important for capacity building in high performance computing and data science, a key technologies to support and develop radio astronomy.
Two years ago South Africa also announced that they partnered with three other African countries and working on launching its second nano satellite. The countries are Tanzania, South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria.
Currently Africa has only one nano-satellite in space, which was launched three years ago. Officials also confirmed that the continent’s miniature satellite is still alive, adding that need existed for Africans to put more nano-statellites in space.
Humbulani Mudau, the Director of Space Science and Technology at the South African Department of Science and Technology said:”As an African country we want to develop our own space policy. But we need more young people to be trained in this field. And we need to position our industries to be globally competitive.”
South African Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said:”Progress regarding the SKA is being made in all countries.The main aim of the SKA/AVN African Ministerial Forum is to provide political and strategic leadership on matters pertaining to the SKA and AVN projects and other relevant initiatives, including the establishment of Big Data infrastructure and capacity.”
Kubayi-Ngubane added: “We noted the importance of the Big Data Africa project for both astronomy as well as more general preparations for the fourth industrial revolution. Given the significance of big data and cyberinfrastructure in economic development at both national and regional level, it was agreed that South Africa and Namibia would explore ways of integrating the Big Data Africa activities in Southern Africa into the SADC Industrialisation Strategy, taking into account prior work within SADC, and liaising with the other members of SADC. Kenya will explore a similar intervention in East Africa, and Ghana in West Africa. It was recommended that this work be presented to the African Union through the intervention of the Ministers.”
The meeting also congratulated the team, led by South Africa, that had successfully bid for the International Astronomical Union’s 2024 General Assembly to be held in Africa for the first time. In anticipation of this event, member countries were urged to contribute to a working document titled “Astronomy 2024 – The Audacious African Vision”, which includes ambitions for human resources, infrastructure, legacy projects, operations and funding.
The SKA will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The total collecting area will be approximately one square kilometre, giving 50 times the sensitivity and 10 000 times the survey speed of the best current-day telescopes. It is being built in Africa and Australia.
Thousands of receptors will extend to distances of up to 3 000 km from the central regions. The SKA will address fundamental unanswered questions about our universe, including how the first stars and galaxies formed after the Big Bang, how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the universe, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and the search for life beyond Earth. Former Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, said big science can bring opportunity to the African continent. She said: “MeerKAT was designed to contribute significantly to our understanding of cosmology, the study of the structure and evolution of the entire universe in its larger scale as well as increasing our understanding of the formation and evolution of individual galaxies.”
The AVN project aims to establish self-sufficient radio telescopes in Africa through the conversion of redundant telecommunication antennas into radio telescopes, adaptation of existing training telescopes, or the construction of new telescope.