Eight countries across Sub-Saharan Africa are taking part in the world’s largest-ever radio astronomy initiative.
Willice Obonyo from Kenya is studying radio signals emitted during early stages in the formation of stars. He’s among a growing group of pioneering African students who are bringing skills and expertise in radio astronomy into several countries on the continent for the first time.
Willice (pictured above, second from the left) is one of more than 260 students trained so far in eight countries as part of the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) project.
The project is a collaboration between universities in the UK, South Africa and Mauritius and has developed over several years through funding from the Royal Society, Newton Fund and Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).
Africa is to be a new hub for studying our skies
Willice had just completed a Masters in Astrophysics in South Africa when he saw the advert for a DARA basic radio astronomy course in his native Kenya. When he looked at the content of the course, he realised that most of it would be new to him, in particular the practical and technical training on using the telescopes and the specific analysis techniques for radio astronomy data.
He says: “Astrophysics isn’t a developed discipline in Kenya, but I knew we were due to have a telescope converted and thought this would enable me to use my new qualification back home.”
The telescope he’s referring to is one in a network of dishes that will be installed in Willice’s home country and seven other countries across Africa: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.
They will be a precursor to phase two of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, led by South Africa’s Karoo Region, where the first phase of construction is due to start in 2021. The SKA project aims to provide around a square kilometre (one million square metres) of data collecting area, enabling astronomers to study the sky in unprecedented detail and much deeper than ever before, anywhere on earth.
Trained radio astronomers are needed to operate the telescopes and utilise the data, but, with the exception of Mauritius, the discipline is mostly non-existent in the eight countries taking part.
This was where Melvin Hoare, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Leeds, saw he could help and kickstarted the whole DARA project back in 2015:
The concept is simple: each year, in each country, up to ten graduates in physics or other relevant disciplines undergo basic but intensive training in astrophysics; technical training in using a radio telescope; radio astronomy observation; and data reduction and analysis. They can then apply to study for a fully-funded Masters degree or, in some cases a PhD, in either South Africa, Mauritius or the UK. The postgraduate researchers have UK and South African co-supervisors.
Naomi: raising the profile of women in radio astronomy
Former trainee and PhD graduate Naomi Asabre Frimpong is determined that radio astronomy becomes one of Ghana’s strengths:
“I’m so motivated to go back to Ghana and put what I’ve learnt into practice. I really believe we can do something important for science and for the world, using our new antenna and the opportunities it offers.”
Naomi became involved when her employer, the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission, was chosen to host the country’s first ever Space Science Institute. A nuclear chemist by training but with no former background in space sciences, she was picked to help get the new institute off the ground. When the first radio astronomy training course was arranged with the University of Leeds, Naomi leapt at the chance. She secured a PhD place at the University of Manchester, combining her love of chemistry with radio astronomy, looking at the astro-chemistry of methanol masers, which are formed in enormous stars.
While it’s been tough being away from her family (she’s still in the UK after completing her PhD and an internship this year) she’s really excited about radio astronomy and what it could mean for her country:
“Women are a minority in the radio astronomy community, so it’s also exciting that I can act as a role model to get girls interested in science. One of the things we plan to do with the telescope is run an astronomy club, inviting school children to come and visit the telescope and learn about what it can do.”
How global partners are helping to skill the workforce
Alongside the University of Leeds, the UK partners are the Universities of Manchester, Oxford, Hertfordshire, Bristol and Central Lancashire. In South Africa, there are training sites and study opportunities at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), SKA-South Africa, five universities and the South African National Space Agency.
To date, 264 trainees have undertaken the basic programme, with 31 studying for a funded Masters or PhD and others securing their own places on Masters and PhD programmes. Most of the PhD students have jobs or job offers to return to and many are forming new groups and beginning to train themselves. The aim is to establish a sustainable African radio astronomy community with co-located services around each of the radio telescope facilities provided by the South African SKA team. In turn, this fosters more jobs and economic opportunities.
The students are also given training in high-level computing, commercial awareness and science development — all part of the project’s aspirations to do far more than simply create a new generation of radio astronomers. To date, more than 100 trainees have accessed the project’s free business consultancy services. Professor Hoare explains:
“Big science — and the home-grown scientists that do it — can inspire future generations to study science. It’s a simple equation: more scientists are good for an economy. Of course, not all those we train will become radio astronomy researchers. But the technical knowledge and additional skills they gain will open many other avenues, all of which can benefit them as individuals and the country as a whole.”
Emmanuel and Johannes: supporting government on big data
Emmanuel Bempong-Manful and Johannes Allotey founded a start-up business after taking their PhDs at the University of Bristol.
They wanted to apply their new skills in radio astronomy and big data to tackle development challenges in Ghana, and so accessed support from DARA’s business consultant.
The company, called iDAM, provides hardware and software facilities for high volume data services and will be running training programmes to help address the skills needed as the Ghanaian government embarks on digitising many areas of the economy and governance. Emmanuel says: “I am extremely grateful to the DARA project for the MSc and PhD scholarship awards. Through the awards, I have also had the privilege to broaden my horizons, skills and competencies in the field of astronomy and astrophysics, and I feel confident about my chosen career path.”
Isaac: from Kenya to Cornwall and back
For Isaac Mutie from Kenya, getting involved in the DARA project has been life-changing.
After graduating in 2015 he could not find work and was struggling to put food on the table. After periods of youth work volunteering and manual farm work he was selected for the basic training. He immediately got an internship with an international company and after further DARA-sponsored training he was offered a job. By this time, Isaac had the radio astronomy bug and was selected for a funded Masters by Research at the University of Manchester which he took up in 2018. In the same year, he was a finalist in the Arthur Clarke science research awards. He says:
“I am particularly thankful to DARA because they have provided me with a rare opportunity to gain all these skills. It’s like a one stop station that has forever changed my life, and that of my people at home.”
Like all the project’s trainees in the UK, Isaac attended a meeting at Goonhilly Earth Station, a satellite communications project in Cornwall run by the UK university partners, to learn how to apply their skills in industry. An internship at the station followed his Masters and he is aiming to return to Kenya in 2020 to start a PhD with UK co-supervision and continued support from DARA.
How funding is helping countries get involved across the world
Outside of Africa, the Newton Fund has enabled other DARA UK university partners to spin out related projects in Mexico, Thailand and Columbia.
To pull all these strands together and spread the experience wider still, Professor Hoare turned to the Global Challenges Research Fund, to run workshops in low and middle-income countries. He explains:
“GCRF funding has allowed us to share the experience built up through the Newton Fund project by running workshops with a wider network of countries, bringing together expertise from all over the world to generate new initiatives.”
Before the workshops have even completed, their impact is being felt. Teams from Peru, Columbia, Ecuador, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Honduras are preparing to lobby their governments to create a network of telescopes in Latin America.
Professor Hoare is convinced that access to both the Newton and GCRF funding streams has helped the project achieve its global reach:
“Radio astronomy isn’t a typical area for promoting development, so being able to partner with South Africa through the Newton Fund was really useful to get the project going and show what we can do. The GCRF has allowed us to extend this still further — so for us, they both play a vital role in the development research funding landscape.”
And for DARA trainees like Willice, who is about to start a postdoctoral role funded by SARAO in South Africa to build his research career further, the possibilities seem endless:
“Radio astronomy has taught me far more than I ever imagined, because it has applications in so many fields. What I want to do is use the skills and knowledge I’m gaining…so I can train others and transfer that knowledge to my country.”
More about DARA project