Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Africa's super telescopes 'will inspire science boom'

The South African Large Telescope (SALT) is one of the largest single optical telescopes in the world. The super-telescope is capable of seeing the faintest of lights in outer space. The South African Large Telescope (SALT) is one of the largest single optical telescopes in the world. The super-telescope is capable of seeing the faintest of lights in outer space.
HIDE CAPTION
African astronomy
South African Large Telescope
South African Large Telescope
South African Large Telescope
High Energy Stereoscopic System
High Energy Stereoscopic System
Entoto Observatory
Entoto Observatory
Entoto Observatory
Entoto Observatory
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Funding astronomy and science in Africa could promote economic growth
  • South African government to invest $26 million in astronomy over five years
  • South African Large Telescope is largest single optical telescope in the hemisphere
  • In October, Ethiopia opened its first observatory

(CNN) -- Under a clear night sky on a rocky arid outcrop, South African astronomers are waiting for the stars to come out and play.

Sightings of faraway galaxies, black holes and the Milky Way are just part of the job for the starwatchers at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

"The site is in an ideal location because there is very little light pollution so the skies are extremely dark," said Nicola Loaring, an astronomer at SAAO. "We don't get extreme seasons here, so it's good conditions for our research all year round."

Based in Sutherland -- a four-hour drive from Cape Town -- the observatory is home to one of the largest single optical telescopes in the world and is symbolic of South Africa's growing commitment to astronomy.

The appropriately named South African Large Telescope is the jewel of the observatory, capable of detecting a candle flame as far away as the moon and light a billion times too faint to be seen by the naked eye, according to SAAO's astronomers.

Read more: Tech cities and mega dams: Africa's giant infrastructure projects

Loaring said: "(SALT) is used to study a range of astronomical objects from asteroids to exoplanets, which are planets orbiting other suns."

The telescope is funded by a consortium including South Africa, the United States, Germany, Poland, India, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

In 1996, the South African government, under the leadership of the late Nelson Mandela, identified astronomy as a key area for investment.

Experiment sheds light on dark matter

In a white paper, lawmakers recognized that if South Africa failed to invest in "flagship sciences" then the country would be viewed as a "second-class" nation "chained forever" to the need for food and clothing.

Telescope price tag is astronomical

Kevin Govender, director of the IAU Office of Astronomy for Development, said that through investment in science and technology, the government can help tackle some of South Africa's social problems.

Read more: Will 'world's biggest' hydro power project light up Africa?

The search for life in outer space

Last year, the government, led by President Jacob Zuma, announced it would invest 200 million rand (around $20 million) in astronomy training over the next five years.

Govender added: "The target that we have is to spend 1% of GDP on science and technology. We haven't reached that yet."

But he added that the benefits of financing astrophysics are already paying off by boosting higher education, employing more professors and contributing to the "knowledge economy."

"This is a an exciting time for astronomy in Africa," he said, "inspiring young people toward education, having the skills to develop economies on the continent and build infrastructure."

Govender added: "When we train an engineer to do a job, they gain the right skills, meaning they can go out and contribute to the country's economy in a number of different ways."

In 2018, construction will begin on the ambitious Square Kilometer Array (SKA), an extremely powerful radio telescope based in the deserts of South Africa and Australia, in a partnership with more than 20 countries. SKA South Africa project director Bernie Fanaroff said: "It has already attracted a lot of young people into science and mathematics in South Africa and from other African countries and it's attracted a lot of top-rate scientists."

Read more: Bright sun, bright future: Can Africa unlock its solar potential?

While South Africa boasts the best resources on the continent, it is just one of the nations leading the way in the pan-African astronomy drive.

Observatories of all shapes and sizes are scattered across Africa in locations such as Burkina Faso, Namibia, Nigeria and Egypt to name a few. Other countries are focusing on training the next generation of astronomers, with the University of Nairobi in Kenya, for example, offering an undergraduate course in astrophysics, designed to train young people to work in observatories.

Telescopes and observatories will continue to spring up in Africa as international cooperation and investment flows into the continent, according to Abiy Tekola, assistant secretary-general at the East African Astronomical Society (EAAS).

He said such a trend "will eventually feed into the economic development of the region."

"This is a an exciting time for astronomy in Africa... inspiring young people toward education, having the skills to develop economies on the continent and build infrastructure."
Kevin Govender, South African Astronomical Observatory

Established in 2010 to promote awareness of astronomy, EAAS members include Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

And development in the region is already taking off. In October, Ethiopia opened East Africa's largest observatory, in the Entoto Mountains on the outskirts of the capital Addis Ababa.

The facility -- run by the Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS) -- is the first step towards a space program, according to group director Solomon Belay.

He said the project, which includes two large telescopes and cost $3.4 million, will inspire children "towards science and technology especially in physics, mathematics, medicine (and) engineering."

Read more: Earth, wind and water: Ethiopia bids to be Africa's powerhouse

Despite Ethiopia's mantle as one of Africa's fastest-growing economies, agriculture makes up the lion's share of output with over a quarter of the population remaining below the poverty line.

But Belay believes the observatory will have a profound impact on the country's progress.

"The effect of the program in Ethiopia is scientific development (and) the transformation of an agricultural-based economy to an industrial-based and knowledge-based economy," said Belay.

The ESSS hopes the telescopes will also boost tourism, as space fanatics visit the Horn of Africa nation to admire the country's first observatory.

Belay added that he wants Ethiopia to become a "world-class research" center for satellite technology and earth observation by 2025.

"(The program intends) to see a transformed society in Ethiopia and Africa as a whole," he said.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Marketplace Africa
updated 6:00 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Fish from the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho are served in top Tokyo sushi spots.
updated 8:23 AM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
The world-famous waterfall is inspiring a local tourism boom as an increasing number of people is visiting Zimbabwe.
updated 5:07 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Seychelles needed more than pristine beaches and choral reefs to boost its once troubled tourism industry.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
A general view of the Hout Bay harbour covered in mist is seen on May 8, 2010 from the Chapman's peak road on the outskirts of Cape Town. Chapman's peak road is the coastal link between Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope. When following the African coastline from the equator the Cape of Good Hope marks the psychologically important point where one begins to travel more eastward than southward, thus the first rounding of the cape in 1488 by Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was a major milestone in the attempts by the Portuguese to establish direct trade relations with the Far East. He called the cape Cabo Tormentoso. As one of the great capes of the South Atlantic Ocean, the Cape of Good Hope has been of special significance to sailors for many years and is widely referred to by them simply as 'the Cape'. It is a major milestone on the clipper route followed by clipper ships to the Far East and Australia, and still followed by several offshore yacht races. AFP PHOTO/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA (Photo credit should read GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Abandoned workshops and empty warehouses are getting a new lease of life in Cape Town.
updated 6:37 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Inside a glove factory on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, busy laborers turn patches of leather into these fashionable garments.
updated 6:50 AM EDT, Thu October 9, 2014
The Somali capital now has its first-ever ATM bank machine -- and it dispenses U.S. dollars.
updated 5:11 AM EDT, Thu October 9, 2014
Waves lap at the ships as they pull into the Port of Ngqura, but no swell is stopping the local economy booming.
updated 11:24 AM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
In Uganda, a group of landmine victims are using banana fiber to create rope, profit and community.
updated 9:37 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
What does it mean to be Nigerian? That's the question on the lips of many in Nigeria as new national identity cards are being rolled out.
updated 7:05 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
 General view of an oil offshore platform owned by Total Fina Elf in the surroundings waters of the Angolan coast 15 October 2003. The 11 members of the OPEC oil cartel have agreed to slash output by a million barrels a day, the OPEC president said 11 October 2006, in a move aimed at shoring up sliding world crude prices.
Six of the top 10 global oil and gas discoveries last year were made in Africa -- but can these finds transform the continent?
updated 6:21 AM EST, Thu February 20, 2014
A South African app allows buyers to pay for goods using their phone, without having to worry about carrying cash or credit cards.
updated 7:27 PM EST, Thu December 12, 2013
African astronomers want world-class observatories to inspire young scientists and build a tech economy.
updated 10:23 AM EST, Wed February 19, 2014
A Zambian computer tablet -- known as the ZEduPad -- is trying to open up the country's information highway.
updated 5:57 AM EST, Thu January 9, 2014
South Africa may be the dominant force in Africa's wine economy, but other countries are making inroads in the industry.
updated 5:27 AM EDT, Thu October 10, 2013
Eko Atlantic city design concept
A lack of infrastructure has hindered Africa's development, but a series of megaprojects could change that.
Each week Marketplace Africa covers the continent's macro trends and interviews a major player from the region's business community.
ADVERTISEMENT