Development in Africa with radio astronomy project

A project, led by the University of Leeds, is set to train a new – and in many cases the first - generation of radio astronomers in eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The goal is to help prepare these countries for participation in an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, and to support wider economic and scientific development.

The Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) project began in 2015 in, Kenya, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana and, thanks to a £2.7 million grant from the Newton Fund, will now continue to 2021, with Ghana, Madagascar, Mozambique and Mauritius joining the project.

Radio astronomy studies objects in space based on the radio signals they emit, tackling questions such as how stars and galaxies are formed and how they evolve over time. The DARA project provides a basic grounding in this area of science, as well as opportunities and bursaries for further research at Masters and PhD level in the UK and South Africa, and additional skills in outreach, innovation and entrepreneurship. Ten scientists from each participating country will undergo the basic radio astronomy training each year.

The eight sub-Saharan African countries involved are all destined to host radio telescopes as part of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) – a major international effort involving ten countries, who are jointly funding the project. The SKA plans to install thousands of dishes to provide something approaching a square kilometre (one million square metres) of collecting area, to enable astronomers to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail and survey the entire sky much faster than any system currently in existence. South Africa’s Karoo desert will host the couple of hundred dishes in the first phase, with construction due to start in 2018. But to gain the resolution required, a second phase is also planned, with telescopes eventually being sited across sub-Saharan Africa.

However, in nearly all of the countries involved in the SKA outside South Africa, radio astronomy is not taught at university and there is no radio astronomy research community to support and enable this vision – and this is the gap that the DARA project is working to fill. But as well as providing skilled people to prepare these countries for the SKA, the project hopes to support wider economic development, as Professor Melvin Hoare, from the University of Leeds, explains: “Radio astronomy covers a wide range of science and technology disciplines, including physics, mathematics, chemistry and computing as well as the technology and engineering needed to develop, maintain and run the telescopes and instrumentation. We will be training a new and diverse generation of young people in these skills that are transferable to many aspects of a developing economy. Some will go on to work within the SKA, but others will naturally use these skills to benefit their countries in other ways.

“Astronomy is also a subject that is known to engage young people in science and technology and our aim is that those we train will go on to inspire others in their country to follow in their footsteps.”

The DARA team includes, from the UK, the universities of Leeds, Manchester, Oxford, Hertfordshire, Bristol and Central Lancashire and satellite communications SME, Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd; from South Africa, , the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory, the South African arm of the SKA project and five South African universities; plus a research institution in each of the partner countries.