The future lies in the skies! Expanding South Africa’s radio astronomy network through cooperation

European Commission At a special meeting in the European Parliament on Monday 7 November, policymakers, experts, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and astronomers alike came together to discuss the future of radio astronomy in South Africa as well as the wider context of scientific partnership between Europe and Africa, one of the key objectives of the Joint Africa-EU Strategy adopted at the 2010 Africa-EU Summit.

Guest speaker Ms Naledi Pandor, Minister for Science and Technology of South Africa, expressed her desire for Africa to be seen not just as a ‘recipient for aid, but a place home to world class research’. She explained how radio astronomy – the study of radio wave-emitting celestial objects such as stars, black holes and galaxies – can drive growth, raise the profile of science and technology among young Africans, and help meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Organised by the European Parliament Delegation for relations with South Africa and hosted by Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats MEP Michael Cashman from the United Kingdom, the event saw experts highlight South Africa’s already important role in the global astronomy network. Its excellent conditions for observation in large territories unaffected by light pollution or radio frequencies have made the country the perfect home for the southern hemisphere’s largest single optical telescope, the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT).

Now South Africa wants to expand its radio astronomy research base and has just launched an African Union (AU)-endorsed bid to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). Set to form the largest radio astronomy project in human history, SKA could help astronomers increase their capacity to solve long-standing puzzles about the Universe.

Set to be operational around 2024, it will be built in phases using existing infrastructure in either South Africa or Australia, following a decision from the internal astronomical community. Professor George Miley, vice president of the International Astronomical Union said: ‘No matter where it goes, it will be a powerful driver for global development.’

Presenting the case for the South African bid, Dr Bernie Fanaroff, director of South Africa’s SKA Project Office, explained that if it is located in South Africa it could effectively fill the current geographic ‘telescope gap’: the SKA antennas would extend to the Indian Ocean islands. He said: ‘The quality of the pictures depends on how many telescopes you have; if you can fill the telescope gap, you will get much sharper pictures. The nice thing about astronomy is the further out you can see, the further back in time you can see.’

But beyond these scientific aspirations, although we might not realise it, radio astronomy has also made a big contribution to our lives in many everyday ways. High-precision adaptive optics, image processing, Wi-Fi, sensitive electronic detectors, and very accurate clocks are just some of the ways radio astronomy knowledge has been applied practically. Dr Bernie Fanaroff said: ‘Growth based on resource extraction is not sustainable, so diversification is essential. Radio astronomy can lead to major technology spin-offs and develop high-level technical and scientific capacity for innovation.’

But perhaps the most important benefit radio astronomy can bring is its accessibility and its ability to inspire young people and attract them to science.
‘Developing the global radio astronomy network is important because it raises science and technology to a high profile in Africa, and it attracts the public’s attention to science. In Africa we don’t have enough engineers and scientists; it is important to break through the prejudice that it is too hard,’ commented Dr Bernie Fanaroff.

Minister Pandor also expressed her hope that radio astronomy can elevate the status of women within the science community. ‘The [Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)] also refer to education and gender; women should enjoy equal access to science and we need to work on decreasing their exclusion.’

EU research funding has long supported radio astronomy in South Africa, via a whole host of projects that aim to link up an emerging network of African telescopes to the European part of the global Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) network. The network combines the observations of many telescopes to produce images it would otherwise be impossible to effect.

The VLBI network was formed in 1980 by a consortium of five of the major radio astronomy institutes in Europe. Since 1980, the European VLBI Network (EVN), a collaboration of the major radio astronomical institutes in Europe, Asia and South Africa that performs high angular resolution observations of cosmic radio sources, and the VLBI network has grown to include 9 institutes with 12 radio telescopes around the world.

One interesting related project is EUNAWE (‘Making young children aware of the Universe’), funded in part by EUR 1 903 577 under the ‘Space’ Theme of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). It aims to get young people in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, South Africa, and the United Kingdom engaged in astronomy.

Beyond astronomy, there has also been a recent focus on health, environment, and agriculture via a EUR 67 million FP7 ‘Africa’ call, in 2010. Another notable recent funding initiative is the 2009 information and communication technologies (ICT) project AFRICACONNECT, funded by the European Development Fund to the tune of EUR 12 million.

Whilst all forms of EU funding for Africa are welcome, and often involve essential life-saving work, delegates at the meeting agreed on the importance of an equal focus on ensuring there is an ‘Astronomy for Development’ collaboration included in the EU’s next Framework Programme for Research, Horizon 2020.

‘Maybe people will raise their eyebrows when we talk about promoting science and technology on the African continent, but it is important that we enter the knowledge economy,’ expressed Minister Pandor. ‘Cooperation between Africa and Europe should not be restricted to agriculture, environment and health issues; it should include a comprehensive set of engagements across the entire science and technology chain. We want to use the collective resources of this planet in an inclusive manner.’

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