Boost for African telescope network

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4 June 2012

The board of the African Renaissance Fund has approved R120-million in funding for the initial work to construct a network of radio telescopes in Africa’s nine Square Kilometre Array (SKA) partner countries.

The fund, located in South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation, has approved the allocation for construction on the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network to begin immediately.

“We are exhilarated that our continent will now receive astronomy research facilities to advance the emergence of the African knowledge economy,” Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement last week.

The Department of Science and Technology has been working with its counterparts in South Africa’s eight SKA partner countries – Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia – since 2009 on ways to fund an African-owned network of radio telescopes.

Very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) is an astronomical technique that uses widely separated radio telescopes in unison to simulate a single telescope hundreds or thousands of kilometres in diameter, producing the clearest, highest resolution images of some of the most distant objects in the universe.

The greater the distance between the telescopes, the greater the resolution of the images produced in this way. Africa’s large north-south geographical spread will therefore make for a powerful VLBI network.

The radio telescope funding injection will be supported by the development of human capital, from technician level to post-doctoral fellowships.

“The growth of Africa as a global astronomy hub is a shared vision of African countries to use the increasingly available broadband infrastructure for research and economic benefits,” Pandor said.

Tshepo Seekoe, the department’s chief director for radio astronomy, said the African VLBI Network would “encourage co-location with research and monitoring facilities like global positioning system stations, automated climate change monitoring weather stations and seismic activity warning systems”.

The network will also be used in studies of geodesy (continental drift), while mineral prospectors and other enterprises with socio-economic benefits will be able to use the roads, electricity and other infrastructure leading to the remote sites where the network’s telescopes will be constructed.

Since the beginning of the African bid to host the SKA, there has been huge progress in astronomy in Africa, including the choice of Cape Town to host the International Astronomical Union Office of Astronomy for Development, the formation of the African Physical Society, the construction of a number of telescopes throughout Africa, and the political endorsement of the SKA bid by the African Union.

SAinfo reporter