Stargazing: Ghana and SA celebrate new success in African network to explore the universe

Cape Town - Making strides in radio astronomy science while giving stargazers even more to be in awe of, South Africa and Ghana have combined ‘first light’ science observations.

This has been achieved through a 32-metre converted telecommunications antenna at the Ghana Intelsat Satellite Earth Station at Kutunse, which will be integrated into the African Very Long Baseline Interferometer (VLBI) Network (AVN). This is in preparation for the second phase construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) across the African continent.

SKA is a large multi-radio telescope project aimed to be built in Australia and South Africa, with a total collecting area of approximately one square kilometre. This will make it the world's largest radio telescope to explore the Universe.

SKA says that the radio telescope is a very sensitive receiver of radio waves, capturing data that is invisible to optical telescopes. This will essentially help radio astronomers collect even more information about our expansive universe.

Ghana is the first partner country of the African VLBI Network to complete the conversion.

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The South African Astronomical Observatory says "Exciting developments are taking place in African radio astronomy" as the instrument can operate as a single dish radio telescope and also as part of global VLBI network observation.

The 32-metre converted Ghana radio telescope in Kutunse, Accra. (Photo: SKA South Africa Facebook)

“The Ghanaian government warmly embraces the prospect of radio astronomy in the country and our radio astronomy development plan forms part of the broader Ghana Science, Technology and Innovation Development Plan,” says Professor Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, the Ghana Minister of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation (MESTI).

Want to know what a radio telescope does? Check this out:

Harnessing radio astronomy potential

A team of scientists and engineers from SKA SA/HartRAO (Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory) and the Ghana Space Science and Technology Institute (GSSTI) have been working since 2011 on the astronomy instrument upgrade to make it radio-astronomy ready.

SEE: The space travellers' guide to exploring the universe

The South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) has been funding a large part of the conversion project through the African Renaissance and International Cooperation Fund (ARF).

The South African Minister of DIRCO, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane says, “The African Renaissance Fund is aimed at strengthening cooperation between South Africa and other African countries and to support the development of skills and build institutional capacity on the continent.”

Bringing new science opportunities to Africa

Nine African partner countries are members of the SKA AVN, including Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia.

“A vital part of the effort towards building SKA on the African Continent over the next decade is to develop the skills, regulations and institutional capacity needed in SKA partner countries to optimise African participation in the SKA,” says the SA’s Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor.

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Pandor adds “It will bring new science opportunities to Africa on a relatively short time scale and develop radio astronomy science communities in SKA partner countries.”

Ministers from the nine SKA AVN partner countries will meet for the next SKA AVN Ministerial Forum in Accra, Ghana, in August when the Kutunse radio telescope will officially be launched.

The Kutunse radio telescope will officially be launched in August 2017. (Photo: SKA South Africa Facebook)

Stargazing in SA - a winter retreat

In the meantime, travellers can still enjoy gazing at the magnificent universe straight from SA - which is particularly ideal during clear skies on a winter's night.

Sutherland, one of the coldest places in SA, is a number one stargazing venue in the country and a perfect winter weekend breakaway destination.

Also in Sutherland, one can find the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere that can observe stars and galaxies thousands of light years from earth.

But Sutherland is not the only stargazing hotspot in SA and various stargazing festivals abroad are also on the avid star-watcher's to-gaze list. Click here to find out more about favourite local stargazing spots.

ALSO SEE: MAP: A light pollution map to help you have the clearest star-gazing adventures

Stargazers can consult this light pollution map to find the ideal, artificial light-free spots for gazing.  

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