Reaching for the stars

Building African bonds through our shared sky

HartRAO telescopes

The 15 metre diameter radio telescope in the foreground and the 26m radio telescope in the background at HartRAO.
(Credit: M Gaylard / HartRAO)

In Gilgil, a small town about 140 km west of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, most young girls want to be doctors, lawyers or singers. But not Ann Njeri Ng’endo. Even as a child, she wanted to reach the stars, study space science and possibly even become an astronaut. Now, at 27 years old, she is on that path.

This is thanks to Development for Africa through Radio Astronomy (DARA), a Newton Fund project, whose organisers believe radio astronomy can fuel growth in Africa. At the  Hartebeesthoek Radio  Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) – one of the South African partners of DARA – Ann is working towards her master’s degree.

"The Newton Fund has given me an opportunity to work on a real life science project," she says. “This experience has enabled me to do a project at a radio observatory, something that was beyond my wildest imagination a few months ago.”

Part of the UK’s official development assistance, the Newton Fund was launched in 2014 to support the economic and social welfare of partner countries by strengthening their science and innovation capacity.

Space for Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa is becoming a hotbed of radio astronomy activity. In 2012 it was announced that South Africa and Australia, as well as eight African partner countries, would co-host the Square Kilometre Array – the largest radio telescope in the world.

As part of a drive to build capacity on the continent, African countries began the African Very-Long-Baseline-Interferometry Network (AVN). For many years, HartRAO was the only African observatory engaged in this type of radio astronomy, plugging into European networks.

Leeds University professor Melvin Hoare created the DARA project as a way to combine his interest in developing nations with his professional passion.

“I was always keen to help developing countries. When this opportunity came along, it meant I could actually apply the skills I use in my day job to fulfil this aim,” says Hoare, who is the DARA principal investigator.

DARA, in partnership with local institutions, has already trained radio astronomers from Kenya, Zambia, Ghana, Namibia and Botswana. In these countries, DARA will build telescopes or convert telecommunications antennas into radio telescopes, forming the basis of the AVN.

Njeri Ng’endo is conducting geodetic VLBI research, a technique which allows scientists to determine the distance between antennas by analysing the time it takes for them to receive signals from sources in the universe. "I am really excited because our results will be used in making some crucial decisions on the AVN," she says.

Growing talent

Training at the HartRAO

Training at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) in South Africa.
(Credit: HartRAO)

Along with other young African scientists, Njeri Ng'endo attended the first DARA technical and observational training in February 2016. The month-long course included lectures on subjects ranging from the history and basics of radio astronomy to practical hands-on sessions, says Aletha de Witt, an operations astronomer at HartRAO.

"We were surprised by the large number of trainees who continued with advanced training in radio astronomy and geodesy, as well as the trainees' continued enthusiasm to promote radio astronomy in Africa,” she says.

The partnership, which includes several UK universities and industrial partners and is funded through the STFC, goes beyond training students to use telescopes. Staffed by experienced entrepreneurs from the telecommunications and space industry, the DARA team also educates its trainees in business practice and knowledge transfer.

To extract the economic benefit from science projects, the team needs to work on human capacity development, says De Witt. This includes economic activity, and technology development, as well as making science an attractive career for students. “Through the DARA training, we maximise these four aspects by ensuring that a wide range of voices join discussions,” she explains.

To boldly go...

The team during training at HartRAO

The team during training at Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) in South Africa.
(Credit: HartRAO)

In two years' time, Hoare expects to see DARA's first set of PhD students completing their training and returning to their home countries to set up their own research groups. But there are still challenges. De Witt is worried about local capacity to train these radio astronomy students. “We have limited resources and time to help the volume of students expected. We need more supervisors.”

For Hoare, the main challenge “is to make the project self-sustaining into the future when the funding from the UK and South Africa stops”. He plans to create a core group of astronomers who will be able to build capacity in their own countries and exploit future local radio astronomy facilities planned for the African continent.

"These groups will also then start to train future generations of students themselves," Hoare explains.

The project’s outreach programme includes going into various schools in each of the partner countries. For Njeri Ng'endo, this is crucial to bring students the same excitement about astronomy that made her fall for what she calls her "first love".

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