Being an astronomer in Africa is a bit of a lonely profession. Most colleagues are in the West and when you talk about stars and planets, people look at you wondering if you are mad. But Africa needs stargazers.
The prettiest sky in the world is found in Africa. In the south of Angola and the north of Namibia, at 16 degrees South to be precise. Astronomer Jaime Vilinga went there with French colleagues to observe the quality of the Angolan atmostphere: “The research showed that for a few months in the year, the circumstances there for looking at the stars and planets are the best in the world. No industry, no light pollution. The milky way is so bright that you have the feeling you can touch it.”
Satellite photos of Africa by night show how dark the continent is: except for Johannesburg, the Mediterranean Sea coast and the Nile valley, there is barely any light pollution. A lot of dark sky, which is ideal for astronomical observations. But that does not mean many Africans occupy themselves with cosmos research. Of the ten thousand astronomers worldwide who are member of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), only 1.5 percent is from an African country – almost exclusively South-Africa and Egypt. But that is something the astronomers want to change.
This year it’s 400 years ago Galileo Galilei first used a telescope to study the night sky. To celebrate, the UN and the IAU declared 2009 the international year of astronomy. They organized stargazing nights and education projects to get more people interested in what’s to see above us. But the astronomers are not taking the easy route: in the coming years, they want to promote astronomy especially in development countries.
A lot of big telescopes are in countries such as Chili, Mexico, Azerbeidzjan and Namibia, because there the circumstances for observations are favorable. A few of the worlds largest telescope are in Africa. In South-Africa is the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), an optical telescope which can observe objects with the brightness of a candle flame on the moon. The South-Africans lovingly call the telescope ‘Africa’s Giant Eye’.
A hundred kilometers from Namibia’s capital Windhoek is HESS, the largest telescope for gamma radiation in the world. Africa’s largest radio telescope, a 26-meter dish, is in Hartebeesthoek, 65 kilometers Northwest of Johannesburg. In that remote valley the radiation from galaxies can be detected without intereference of radio waves from earth.
But the location of those telescopes does not mean they are manned by scientists from those countries. Astronomers in Africa have a bit of a lonely profession, because they are few. In the USA, 2577 astronomers are member of IAU; in Angola, on a population of 13 million, there is only one: Jaime Vilinga. “I’m special. I am the only astronomer in my country.” Interest for astronomy is rather high since the solar eclipses which were visible there in 2001 and 2002. Both attracted a lot of tourists and scientists. “We travelled to the country side and explained to people how they should observe the eclipse without damaging their eyes. We told them this is natural, not something evil.” Vilinga got a scholarship to study in Paris. When he got his Ph.D. in 2006, UNESCO officials and the Angolan ambassador came to the ceremony.
Now Vilinga is 47 and back, working at the univserity in Luanda. “People know me in Angola. If they want to know something about space, television and radio stations quickly start looking for me.” The Angolans dream of their own big telescope. “The government wants to build an observatory in the south, fifty kilometer from Lubango. But we don’t have the specialists to make that work. I try to convince them that it is better to build an Angolan national observatory here in the capital. That would make astronomy visible. My personal dream is an entertainment park, where young people can play and learn at the same time. With a telescope, a planetarium and IMAX-films. They can learn there and maybe they will think ‘I want to be a physicist or a chemist’.
But he’s not sure if those dreams will come true: “I am doing my best, but it’s hard to do something. We are coming out of a long civil war and there are still ethnic problems. People are dying from polluted water and malaria. When I talk about astronomy, people say: ‘He is crazy. How can he talk about stars and the moon, when people are dying of a lack of food?’.
Kevin Govender works for the South African Astronomical Observatory, the organisation which operates the SALT telescope. It’s a beautiful site: “There is lots of open space in Africa, abundant acres of unpolluted light. Even the major ESA observatories in Chili are near towns, but here in Sutherland there is nothing, only darkness. On moonless nights you can walk by the light of the stars. It is a perfect sky. When the atmosphere is stable, with not much wind or moisture, stars don’t even twinkle. You see very sharp images, even with the naked eye.
African are certainly open to astronomy, Govender thinks. “The night sky is not a foreign thing to people. Astronomy is part of our culture and history. Some of it is scientific, with people using stars for navigation or to know when to start planting. But there are also beliefs, where people have stories about what causes night and day or how the sun is made. When there was no tv, the sky was your friend, the most familiar thing.”
Telling people about science however can still be a challenge: “It works best to first talk about their current beliefs about the sky. Then you can have them look through a telescope and tell them ’this is what we figured out using technology. Showing them Saturn has rings and Jupiter has moons, that is a powerful way to tell something.”
Govender does understand that an expensive science such as astronomy does not have high priority with most Africans. “To the man in the street it is clear that we should invest in houses, not telescopes. But fortunately our government realises how important science and high-tech research are.” But really, why is it so important for Africa that more should be done about astronomy? “I studied nuclear physics, with a major in astronomy. I always felt astronomy is great. You get to think about the evolution of our solar system or the beginning of the universe. That’s very powerful, especially because it is so hard. It inspires people to think, and in Africa we need thinking people. More technicians and engineers are needed to solve Africa’s problems. We can’t keep relying on food aid, we need to accept the challenges. Astronomy is an area which can inspire to become problem solver, for instance by studying physics or mathematics.”
If you walk into the control rooms of the large observatories, you won’t see only white people anymore, he says: “There’s more and more black Africans working there. Most of them are young and at the start of their career. But when the managers will retire, those African Ph.D’s are going to take their place.”
Astronomy is tought in more and more schools and universities in Africa. In Kenya, dr. Paul Baki of the University of Nairobi just founded a faculty for astronomy. “In 2001 I was at a congres for physicists in India and there I got talking to astronomers. Their field fascinated me. I had never used a telescope before that. When I came back, I started developing a course astronomy and astrophysics.”
But is it possible to see anything in Nairobi, by the light of its three million inhabitants? “On campus the light pollution isn’t so bad. We have very good sight now and then. Sometimes I get invited by hotels in the near wildlife reserves like Masai Mara, to talk to their guests about astronomy. And there it’s pitch-dark.”
Interest for academic education certainly is not the problem. In October the first group of thirty students has started. Sixty students had applied, but Baki can’t yet facilitate that many students. “We are beginners. We don’t have an observatory. We do have teachers, but they have been trained in theoretical physics. We are managing this course with two people, which is not enough. It is a bit of a challenge.”
Baki is assured of the support of his international colleagues. The IAU has adopted a strategic plan for the ten years to come, which states that the astronomers union will work to improve the ‘infrastructure for astronomy in emerging countries’, by advising governments and support educational institutions. The astronomers say more attention for astronomy will stimulate the development of higher education, which in turn is good for economy.
A lot is going to happen, and not only withing the walls of universities. Even though getting them through customs is not easy, Kevin Govender in South-Africa should soon receive 3.000 telescopes donated by the IAU. Paul Baki is still waiting as well, but there too 251 telescopes will be delivered, for use at schools and in educational programmes.
In Nigeria and South-Africa two new radio telescopes are being built. The MeerKAT telescope in South-Africa should be working in 2013 and will then be the largest radio telescope in Africa. It is expected that within two years the Nigera Radio Telescope will be ready for research on black holes, molecular clouds and the formation of galaxies. But even without telescopes the skies will attract the attention of Africans – on January 15 another solar eclipse will be visible in, among other countries, Chad, Kenya and Somalia.
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Galileoscopes, the cheap but sturdy telescopes the IAU is sending to developing countries, are available for sale:
In January another solar eclipse is visible in a large part of Africa. NASA has a calendar of solar eclipses in the coming decades on its special website:
Astrophotographer Thierry Legault shows the pictures he made during his trip with Jaime Vilinga to Angola in 2004: http://www.astrosurf.com/legault/angola_mai2004.html
Official website of the International Year of Astronomy:
Earth by night on stitched-together satellite photos: