SKA mega-project boosts astronomy research and skills

The advanced technological skills required to run the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA – a mega-research project due to become fully operational in 2020 in South Africa and eight other African countries – are scarce in Africa. But efforts to rectify that are gathering momentum.

The SKA is a €1.5 billion (US$1.9 billion) collaboration between South Africa and Australia to build the world’s largest radio telescope, with a square kilometre of collecting area. It will comprise thousands of large antennae spread across Africa and Oceania, and will be 50 times more sensitive and will survey the sky 10,000 times faster than any other radio telescope.

Astronomers and engineers from more than 70 institutions in 20 countries are involved in developing the SKA, but in Africa the expertise required to design, construct and operate radio telescopes is minimal, and in many countries astronomy is in its infancy.

The eight African countries – Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia – that are partnering with SKA South Africa in hosting remote stations are at different levels of development.

Senior science ministry officials from the African countries met in March this year to discuss a readiness plan that will include developing a community of scientists to undertake radio astronomy studies across Africa.

And earlier this month country representatives involved with astronomy at African universities came together at the 9th SKA Africa Postgraduate Bursary Conference held in Stellenbosch, near Cape Town.

Human hurdles in Madagascar

Madagascar started classes in astrophysics at masters level last January but a pressing matter that needs resolution is the proposed sites of the SKA telescopes in the country.

Professor Minoson Rakotomalala, head of astronomy at the University of Antananarivo, told University World News that two proposed sites in the south of the large Indian Ocean island – Ankaramena and Betroka – were too far from the university where physicists and astronomers are based.

For security reasons there are plans to revise the suggested locations.

“There are armed gangsters in the proposed areas which will make the infrastructure a target of vandalism. For several months Malagasy soldiers have not managed to overcome the gangsters. Sometimes they are captured but others reappear,” said Rakotomalala.

“To put our telescopes there would be a waste of money, to send our scientists there would be simply to kill them,” he said. Rakotomalala said a new site at Tampoketsa, 200km away in the north was being considered, as experts would be able to visit regularly at less cost.

The University of Antananarivo is the only institution that offers astrophysics courses in Madagascar. “Students are eager to know more about the new field. We now need Malagasy astronomers and graduate students in South Africa to help us out,” he said.

Since 2007 Madagascar has sent 11 students for training in South Africa through the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme at the University of Cape Town. There are now four students with doctorates in astronomy and cosmology and two in engineering.

“These astronomers are expected to help us to run the new coursework programme at the university, as well as co-supervise the students during their masters project,” said Rakotomalala.

Mauritius builds from own experience

Dr Radhakhrishna Somanah, associate physics professor at the University of Mauritius, said the university’s remote station would be at the site of the Mauritius Radio Telescope – the first interferometry array in Africa – considered ‘most probably the last telescope to be able to have a good look at the southern sky successfully at a low radio frequency before human progress kills this possibility’.

Education is free from primary to undergraduate level in the country and the University of Mauritius has taught astronomy in its BSc honours in physics course for more than 20 years. Today students can do a BSc honours in physics specialising in astrophysics, and a masters in astrophysics with radio-astronomy and applications is also offered.

“There are no postgraduate scholarships so far. Our government gives 50 scholarships for undergraduate studies to African students each year with an annual intake of around 15. We are trying to see how we can shift the undergraduate scholarships to postgraduate. We are also seeking funds from the European Union,” he said.

There are three astronomers at the University of Mauritius, five PhDs outside Mauritius and eight doing PhDs in astrophysics abroad, mostly in South Africa.

Somanah said his government was fully supportive of the SKA project but there was a need for more financial support, especially for initiating the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network, or AVN, in Mauritius.

“The AVN project is a 100% African project which is essential for ensuring that technicians and scientists in the African partner countries can acquire experience which is essential for the SKA project,” he said.

Other African experiences

“The closest Zambia comes to having astronomers are two students studying in South Africa,” said Nchimunya Mwiinga, a lecturer at the University of Zambia. “One is a PhD student and another is doing a masters.”

Mwiinga said only electrodynamics and astrophysics were being taught as foundation courses at his university and he hoped more students would study in South Africa in future.

“As we talk about astronomy one aspect seems to be forgotten – we are at different levels of capital development,” he said.

Copperbelt University in Zambia was chosen to host the Southern African node of the International Astronomical Union’s Office of Astronomy for Development in August this year.

Dr Kgakgamatso Moloi from the University of Botswana said his country didn’t have any astronomy programmes.

“We are taking steps to start two courses in astrophysics,” he said, adding that there were plans to buy a telescope for teaching and research and initially five or six students would be enrolled in the programme.

Moloi said they were pinning their hopes on 12 undergraduate and masters students who are studying at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa being able to help grow the programme when they returned home.

Geoffrey Okengo, a Kenyan astrophysicist at the University of Nairobi who is completing a PhD in South Africa, said Kenya was “beyond buying equipment. We now need our computational facilities to be able to interpret the data.” The University of Nairobi awarded degrees to its first astronomy graduates last year.

Bernard Duah Asabere, a PhD student at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa and a research scientist at the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission, said his country was also in the process of building up numbers of astronomers. Ghana is currently involved in converting old satellite dishes into low-cost radio telescopes.

Bursaries to the rescue

Meanwhile the SKA capital development project, designed to build a vibrant scientific community with the necessary skills to drive astronomy, has managed to produce 612 graduates, up from nine when it started in 2005.

Kim de Boer, general manager for human capital development at SKA South Africa, told a parliamentary committee on 12 November that since 2005, 612 bursaries and grants had been awarded to postdoctoral fellows, postgraduate and undergraduate students doing science, engineering and technical degrees and research at universities, and to further education and training students training to be artisans.

De Boer said the capacity development programme – which is “starting to work successfully” – is intended to create a pipeline of skills for astronomical research and instrumentation, by supporting students doing physics, engineering and technology degrees from undergraduate to postgraduate level, and filling staff positions in universities or the SKA project office.

Since 2005, 434 men and 178 women had received grants and 450 out of the total 612 beneficiaries were South Africans.

Dr Bonita de Swardt, SKA South Africa programme officer, told the parliamentary committee that for new projects the objective was to improve the demographics of SKA South Africa by attracting talented young graduates from universities throughout the country to work in its science and engineering teams.

Selected science and engineering students were employed by SKA South Africa for two or three years depending on the level of their qualifications.