African radio astronomy ready for takeoff17 January 2012
The recently established collaboration between the EU and Africa is set to unleash a huge potential for radio astronomy. Rowan Watt-Pringle finds out what this partnership could mean for the African aerospace industry, casting an eye over the aerospace and astronomy initiatives that will drive social and economic growth in the region.
Following what was billed as 'an extraordinary meeting of the European Parliament's Delegation for relations with South Africa' in Brussels on 7 November 2011, scientific partnerships between the EU and Africa look set to go from strength to strength, with South African Minister for Science and Technology Naledi Pandor highlighting the potential of radio astronomy to serve as a flagship initiative for this drive.
Since 2007, the Joint Africa-EU Strategy has outlined a 'co-owned', long-term shared vision of future African-European relations in a globalised world.
Africa offers several competitive and strategic advantages as a developing region, such as the affordability of land, labour and services compared to other regions.
The absence of seismic activity is another positive, as is the presence of academic infrastructure to support scientific and technological initiatives in many countries.
Southern Africa already hosts some of the world's most exciting astronomy facilities, including the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) in South Africa and the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) in Namibia.
The former is also building one of the world's largest radio telescope arrays, MeerKAT, which is due in 2015 and already in great demand by the international astronomy community.
What is radio astronomy?
Radio astronomy examines electromagnetic radiation from outside the planet's atmosphere. A radio telescope is basically a highly sensitive radio receiver. Multiple antennas can be combined into 'arrays' to enhance resolution, while widely separated antennas can combine signals, surpassing optical telescope resolutions.
Radio telescopes have allowed a number of breakthroughs in understanding our universe, unveiling phenomena near the sun's surface, measuring planet surface temperatures in our solar system and giving some of the first clues relating to 'dark matter'.
Driving socioeconomic growth
Pandor noted that astronomy is a discipline where Africa enjoys a considerable comparative advantage, due to the excellent conditions for observation. Speaking at the November 2011 meeting, she explained: "We have access to the Southern skies, with large territories unscarred by light pollution or radio-interference. We are determined to exploit this geographic advantage for the maximum benefit for our people."
Because of this, as well as its import for wider socioeconomic development, the South African Government has pinpointed investment in astronomy as a "priority science mission". Personnel will be needed to design, build and operate the facilities as well as run the associated services, while new facilities will promote the growth of infrastructure like roads, railways and power networks.
Pandor elucidated: "Investments in research infrastructures contribute to socioeconomic development in the regions where they are located. Employment opportunities are created. Basic services and infrastructures are developed (...) often in remote, rural areas. There are multiple opportunities for African and European industries to work together in this context."
She continued: "Policymakers often talk about brain circulation to mitigate brain drain. Under our programmes, several post-graduate African students are working at European universities, contributing to knowledge generation in Europe, but leading European astronomers have also been taking up positions in Africa."
She claimed the impact of the South African Government's initial investment in astronomy can be seen in the fact that in 2003 there were just 12 practicing radio astronomers in Africa, a number which has swelled to more than 60, "all contributing not only to Africa's growth and development, but also the global scientific enterprise of discovery."
According to various experts, radio astronomy projects in Africa drive innovation in several technological fields, such as sensor technology and renewable energy, as well as playing a vital socio-economic role in helping to spread broadband connectivity in sub-Saharan Africa, directly contributing to economic growth.
Tangible benefits can already be seen in existing projects across the continent, but particularly in Southern Africa: SALT, the single biggest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, and HESS are examples of the scientific (and specifically astronomical) partnerships already existing between Africa and Europe.
MeerKAT's regional socio-economic impact can be seen in burgeoning local road construction, while a R46m (€4.6m) contract has been awarded to a South African company to construct a specialised 33kV overhead power line and fibre optic cable system for the telescope.
The SKA bid
As part of the substantial African governmental backing being given to radio astronomy projects, South Africa - partnering with Kenya, Ghana, Mauritius, Madagascar, Namibia, Zambia, Botswana and Mozambique - is bidding to host what will be the world's most powerful radio telescope, expected to be operational by 2025: the revolutionary Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
According to Pandor, the African SKA bid has already helped establish new astronomy programmes at several African universities. "Training programmes in radio astronomy are helping us to grow Africa's future workforce of knowledge workers and engineers," she added.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has noted the key role of astronomy as a tool for educating young people - a view supported by Pandor, who enthused: "What excites me most is the potential of astronomy to encourage a greater interest in scientific careers among the youth ... (it) is proving to be an unrivalled instrument for science education in terms of the excitement it generates among our youth."
In preparation for the SKA telescope, South Africa has introduced a comprehensive human capital development programme supporting students across the continent studying physics, astronomy, engineering and ICT.
This has been highly successful in attracting young African students into science and engineering, and since 2005 has awarded 263 grants for undergraduate and postgraduate studies.
According to Pandor, the African SKA bid has also stimulated interest in astronomy across the continent and will provide opportunities for practical work, enhancing the uptake of science training programmes in Africa.
The African aerospace industry
CANEUS International founder and chairman Milind Pimprikar, a unique non-profit organisation driving international collaborative aerospace development, highlighted the importance of promoting African aerospace: "Aerospace capabilities are essential to national safety, security and socioeconomic needs in Africa; aerospace programmes have strategic value as well as industrial spin-offs."
He believes that while the African aerospace industry is dominated by a few major players like South Africa, Nigeria and Algeria, "there is a strong desire to build 'African-wide' capability in the production of aerospace products in other developing nations."
Pimprikar stated that the EMEA region - comprised of Europe, the Middle East and Africa - is becoming the primary global aerospace hub, meaning: "Both in the aeronautics and space sectors, with the projected shifting aerospace trade, enhanced partnership between the EU and Africa will be important to both economies."
Pimprikar added: "Current trends indicate that the next decade will be critical for African countries working together collectively, using a 'shared' approach, to meet the aspirations of Africa."
Noting that SKA is just one of many new and exciting projects that will springboard Africa's "fascinating leap into innovation, exploration and discovery", he predicted: "Countries from Africa will call upon their best engineers and scientists - along with those in academia and industry - to help develop the technology for sophisticated telescopes, each building on the scientific and technological achievements of prior missions."
When asked whether the African aerospace industry can ever hope to compare with more established international players, Pimprikar noted: "In the past decade, there has been a lot of research within South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) driving this agenda. The CSIR looked into 26 technology areas designated by the European Space Agency (ESA), to measure their international level, finding that 18 are already covered to varying degrees within CSIR."
Additionally, Nigeria and other countries have ambitious plans covering satellite manufacturing facilities and own-launch vehicles for manned missions within the next decade, on a par with Nasa and the ESA. However, Pimprikar issued a word of caution over ongoing debates between Africa's 'haves' and 'have-nots', with a need to "work together for the collective needs of Africa (...) This will be equally important to the aspirations of individual African countries."
Bridging the gap
Pandor emphasised that the African SKA bid and related radio astronomy initiatives have the potential to bridge the traditional divide between developed and developing economies and added: "Global scientific endeavour requires the contributions of all regions, especially those in the developing world excluded in the past."
"With its strong current footprint of initiatives on the continent, the SKA specifically - and radio astronomy more generally - can play a dynamic role in harnessing Africa's science and technology capacities to contribute to global growth and development," she said, concluding that development of large scale radio astronomy facilities should boost African socioeconomic growth, training a new generation of highly-qualified scientists, technicians and professionals and creating opportunities for local companies to cooperate with European industry.