Yes, Africa really is home to the world’s top telescope

Two hundred years ago, a couple of interesting and related events took place in the worlds of science and of empire. Of course, they began in London. First, a group of gentlemen met at a pub and started the Astronomical Society. A decade later, the King handed over some parchment and it became the Royal Astronomical Society, now celebrating its bicentenary. Disclosure: I am a Fellow of the RAS.

Next, an overlapping group of gentlemen persuaded the Admiralty that it needed an eye on the sky in the Southern hemisphere. The result? An observatory at the Cape of Good Hope, handy both politically and logistically. It made use of slave labour and later, South African astronomy happened under apartheid. Now its successor body, the South African Astronomical Observatory, flourishes in a more benign environment.

If you doubt the importance of astronomy to national life, you did not hear Dr Tana Joseph’s talk last night as part of the RAS 200 celebrations. She was talking about the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s biggest radio telescope, now a-building in South Africa, other African nations, and Australia and New Zealand. It will work by combining signals from hundreds of dishes in Oz and NZ, and thousands in Africa, to create the effect of a single 1km dish. Even now, the much smaller number of SKA precursor telescopes are generating great science.

When it got going, an early YouTube video on this ambitious project brought in a baffled response from a viewer who could not believe that Africans could carry out such a project, much less pay for it. In fact its development has led to a big growth in South African technical and science education , and to heavy development of local IT skills, because (read the next bit slowly), SKA running at full tilt will generate 157 terabytes of data a second. Who’s to say that next Bill Gates won’t spring from one of its many science scholarships?

SKA has created 9,000 jobs, and the R14 bn cost is a fifth of the GDP of the North Cape, its epicentre. It has involved Zambia’s first astronomy PhD and Burkina Faso’s first woman astronomer, showing its potential to raise knowledge and skill across Africa. And it is a major player in upping school standards, a running sore in South African development.

Oh, and SKA will produce terrific science. Joseph showed us a fantastic image of a cool hydrogen bubble in our own galaxy: the picture took three nights to be gathered by ASKAT, the Aussie precursor telescope for SKA. If the mighty Australia Telescope – the previous state of the art – took on the same task, it would need 15 months.

Is there a down side? Well, people living in the Karoo desert near SKA can’t have smartphones or Wi-Fi – too much interference. But it’s sparsely populated, and sellers of ethernet cables are happy. Joseph is incensed, however at the potential threat to SKA from the big constellations of tiny communications satellites now being launched by tech billionaires. They promise to bring the internet to Africa, she says, but Africans never asked for them, unlike SKA which has clear benefits and for which support has been built from the ground up.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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