Astronomy shoots for mass appeal

2013-01-24 13:01
Astronomy is trying to appeal to a younger generation. (SAAO)

Astronomy is trying to appeal to a younger generation. (SAAO)

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Cape Town - Astronomy is coming to the masses as data from telescopes becomes freely available to anyone with an internet connection.

Data from the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) will allow people interested in astronomy access to information on the observations from instruments around the world.

The LCOGT has observation instruments in Australia, the US, the Canary Islands, Chile and at the site of the Southern African Large Telescope (Salt) in Sutherland, Northern Cape.

"This data contains a great deal of information about extrasolar planets, supernovae and many more objects that are exciting. Currently, the LCOGT data is exclusively dedicated to outreach," said the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

There has been an increased interest in astronomy in SA after the country won the right to host the major share of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope.

SKA project

Nasa's Kepler space telescope, launched in March 2009, has also discovered several hundred planet candidates, some of which may be similar to Earth.

There are hopes that access to the data will spur the interest in science and technology among young people.

"These telescopes will contribute magnanimously toward creating a scientifically literate younger generation countrywide, also in the development of astronomy in the continent," said Ethiopian postdoctoral fellow Dr Abiy Tekola who holds a joint position at the LCOGT and SAAO.

SA needs to produce an increasing number of engineers and scientists if it is to deliver the SKA by 2024.

We're going to have to do many things to have the people because it doesn't help us having a world leading instrument and as South Africans, we're not active participants, using that instrument to its full capability," National Research Foundation CEO Dr Albert van Jaarsveld told News24 recently.

The SKA project has moved to try and remedy the lack of science skills in the country in partnership with the department of science and technology in awarding bursaries and establishing research chairs at universities to fast-track astronomy professionals.

"We do need people who are skilled in science and mathematics, but at the same time, I'm hoping that we are contributing to the solution of that problem as well," said Professor Justin Jonas, associate director of Science and Engineering, SKA South Africa.

Learners

The LCOGT is an opportunity for educators to build interest in astronomy and contribute to developing inquiry among young people.

Tekola has piloted a programme with school learners in Sutherland where they are exposed to astronomy data.

"Anyone interested in participating in the project needs to have a computer with internet access, and then the astronomical data is freely accessible on the LCOGT website," he said.


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