High tech Karoo lab to grow interest in science

2014-04-22 12:10
The Karoo is an ideal area for astronomy. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

The Karoo is an ideal area for astronomy. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - The geosciences laboratory in South Africa to be built in the Karoo near the town of Majiesfontien will focus on growing interest in high tech science.

The department of science and technology, National Research Foundation and Acer have partnered to build the Matjiesfontein Space Geodesy Observatory.

The programme will allow scientists from the Universities of Stellenbosch, Pretoria, KZN, North West; and the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) to conduct measurements of plate tectonics and Lunar Laser Ranging (LLR).

"The programme is aligned with the South African Government's priorities and we fully support the approach of bringing different partners together in making such a programme work," said Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom.

The programme forms part of an expansion of high tech facilities in the Karoo, following the Salt (Southern African Large Telescope) in Sutherland and the SKA (Square Kilometre Array) centred at Carnarvon.

Growing interest

The Karoo is particularly attractive for astronomy because the area is dry and relatively cloudless. This means that scientists can expect ideal conditions for LLR.

The facility will be the first LLR centre in SA and though researchers have been measuring the distance from the Earth to the Moon for decades, the distance continues to increase as the Moon spirals away from the Earth at about 35cm a year.

TUT Professor Ludwig Combrinck and Dr Stoffel Fourie have been leading geosciences study from Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory while the new facility was under construction.

The Matjiesfontein facility is expected to drive more students into the sciences.

"Science should not be the elite preserve of a few academic individuals typically facilitated in a white jacketed laboratory," Fourie said.

The Space Geodesy and Geophysics Observatory will occupy 50ha of land south of the town and there has been an uptick in astronomy interest since SA began development of projects like the SKA.

Internet access

"We do certainly still have students who come to me and say they are interested in the SKA and want to be part of it, so we have got those students, but perhaps the more important thing is an awareness among school kids," Professor Justin Jonas, associate director of Science and Engineering of the SKA SA told News24.

Acer provided hardware technology as well as internet access so that students can conduct classes and do research.

"Acer Africa is focused on education and providing infrastructure and appropriate learning conditions that help to discover and develop systems through education," said Marius le Grange, Acer Africa education manager.

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