GAM 2012 Blog

April 26

By Fikiswa Majola

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When people think about South Africa, then often think about our beautiful country with interesting flora and fauna and well as the variety of people and cultures and lifestyle that had made us call us the Rainbow Nation.

Little is know about the science that is done is SA, especially by those that are not in the science fields. One of the areas in which we have a geographic advantage as well as excel in, is astronomy. In this post I will show how astronomy has been around has been around for a very long time, and how South Africa as a country is excelling in astronomy and why it is excelling in this science.

Mankind has been doing astronomy since they could look at and observe the night sky. In the many cultures of South Africa, and Africa as a whole, there are many different stories told about the night sky- whether about the moon or various constellations such as Orion and the Pleiades (though not called Orion and the Pleiades)- a lot of the cultures have had a lot of indigenous astronomy stories about various objects in the night sky. These are usually linked to changing seasons, times of significant annual events within each cultures' calender.

In the Xhosa culture of South Africa, as well as many other southern African cultures, one of the most prominent constellations is the Pleaides or Seven Sisters constellation. The Xhosa name for the Plaides is isiLimela, which loosely translates to “the digging stars.” The appearance of these stars indicated a need for the grounds to be hoed. These stars were used as a warning and a reminder of the growing season.
IsiLimela also signifies the time of year when Xhosa boys would go to initiation school, as a transtition into manhood. The month of June is called isiLimela, and this is when Xhosa boys would go to initiation school, as a transition into manhood. The men would then count their manhood years from the time when isiLimela would appear. These stars signify a renewed year- in the community as is it the time to dig, for boys becoming men and young men growing older in their manhood years.

Astronomy as a science was first done at the now South African Astronomical Observatory when the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope was founded in 1820. The observatory (SAAO) was established in 1972 and since then a number of other astronomical observatories were have been established and are operating in South Africa. The observatory is a national research facility and the research conducted there is in the optical and near infrared; the headquarters are located in Cape Town with the research telescopes located in Sutherland in the Northern Cape. One of these telescopes is the Southern African Large Telescope, SALT, which is the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere.

Radio astronomy research was first conducted at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO), in the Gauteng province.. The observatory was originally named Deep Space Station 51, and was built in 1961 by NASA as a tracking station for its unmanned space missions. These missions included the Ranger, Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter spacecraft, the Mariner missions and the Pioneer missions. When Mariner 4 sent to Earth the first images of the surface of Mars, they were received at DSS 51. Since the early DSS 51 days, the station is now a national research facility of South Africa's National Research Foundation, established in 1988. The station has a 26m radio, until recently has been the only major radio astronomy observatory in Africa.

Radio astronomy has grown since the establishment of HartRAO. A 15metre eXperimental Development Model Telescope was built at HartRAO and served as a testbed for MeerKAT. In the province of the Northern Cape, construction is underway to build the Karoo Array Telescope, or  MeerKAT. South Africa has already constructed KAT-7 – the seven-dish MeerKAT precursor array; which is already being used as an engineering and science prototype.  When completed, MeerKAT will have 64 13.5m-diameter antennas, and will be the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere- until the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is completed.

The SKA is a radio telescope that will be the world's most biggest and most sensitive radio telescope ever built. It will consist of approximately 3000 dish-shaped antennas which will have the combined collecting area of one square kilometre. It will be able to detect radio waves from very distant celestial objects, and will allow many more new discoveries about how the universe was formed and what it is made of. South Africa (with its African partners)  and Australia are finalists in the bid to host this mega telescope. If South Africa wins the bid, the core of the SKA will be Northern Cape province, and will spread over several African countries.

The South African government has drawn up an Astronomy Geographic Act to protect a minimum of 12.5 million ha designated as an astronomy reserve in the Northern Cape province. SALT, KAT-7 and MeerKAT are all within this area. The support of the government shows the importance of astronomy and the idea location of South Africa on the globe to perform world class astronomy research. The Northern Cape province is very special in that it had the largest area of all the provinces, and yet has the smallest population in the country. This is due to the fact that it is mostly desert, a perfect place to do astronomy.

With the current developments in the engineering and science taking place in astronomy in South Africa, all of us should be excited about the prospects of it. We will be able to understand more about the history of the universe, as well as our future. Having world class scientific facilities in our country will also encourage our young people to take interest in the science and engineering fields and will open a lot of research, bursary and job opportunities. Above all, this will create a culture of science among the general population.

We have come a long way from observing 7 brilliant stars that appear mid-year, indicating to us that it is time to hoe the fields, to having the most advanced technology that is helping us probe into the universe and answer fundamental questions about it; and his is just the beginning. I cannot wait to see the technology spin-off from the astronomy research that is done in South Africa, and my ultimate wish is for every school child to know basic astronomy- more than just planets and their names.

With big science comes big responsibility, there is a team of science communicators (from various institutions) that are steadily spreading the message of science to schools and the general public. HartRAO, SAAO, MeerKAT/SKA Africa and various planetarium and science centre staff have dedicated outreach and science awareness teams. We are slowly but surely changing how people perceive science- and my personal goal is to show everyone how awesome astronomy is.


Fikiswa Majola: Science junkie, passionate about astronomy and science outreach. She has travelled across the country and Africa to tell anyone who would listen about the beauty of astronomy, its importance in Southern Africa and how to grow up to be an astronomer.