First Arab astronomical observatory under way

Algeria is building the first astronomical observatory of its kind in the Maghreb region and the Arab world. The major observatory in Tamanrasset, which is located in the desert of the Hoggar region nearly 2,000 kilometres south of the capital Algiers, will be opened in 2019.

Based at the Centre for Research in Astronomy, Astrophysics and Geophysics, the observatory has been initiated by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research as a part of the national strategy for research and technology development, according to a 9 April report from the Algeria Press Service, or APS.

The astronomical observatory is being set up in collaboration with France's Cote d'Azur Observatory, said APS.

The observatory will focus on research into solar physics, and contribute to knowledge transfer through conferences and workshops and publishing books, journal articles and bulletins.

It will also provide training in astronomy to research astronomers and observatory technical staff, and will offer an array of courses for teachers wishing to incorporate astronomy into the public school curriculum.

Status of astronomy in Arab universities

"Today, Arab astronomy barely registers on the world map. Scientific research is weak across the Arab world and astronomy weaker still," according to an October 2013 report titled Astrophysics: Time for an Arab astronomy renaissance.

"Unlike countries of comparable gross domestic product per capita, such as Turkey, Israel and South Africa, most Arab nations are generating fewer than 10 papers in the field each year, and these are hardly cited."

The report indicated that the number of astronomy and astrophysics papers as a proportion of science papers for the Arab world is three per 1,000. Citations for Arab articles in astronomy for 2000-09, which had a first author from an Arab country, were strikingly low with South Africa's citation figures 20 times higher than those of the 22 Arab countries combined.

The way forward

"This astronomical observatory could help in restarting astronomy, both nationally in Algeria and regionally in African and Arab states," Arab science and technology expert Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid told University World News.

This could be done by developing scientific workforces in astronomy or astrophysics through undergraduate and postgraduate programmes at Arab and African universities, supported by scholarships for students to pursue postgraduate studies at world-class universities abroad.

To promote regional exchange of expertise and best practice, Abdelhamid called for the creation of an Afro-Arab network for astronomy including scientists, technologists, lecturers and policy-makers as well as universities, technology institutions and centres with astronomy programmes.

"Developing joint astronomy research projects with regional and international science institutions and organisations is also a must in order to advance scientific progress and enhance knowledge and technology transfer," Abdelhamid concluded.