Affordable Radio Telescope Aids Research and Training Opportunities for African Scientists

Source: SARAO

In a news release by the South African Radio Astronomy Observation (SARAO), the institute stated that researchers and engineers from nine African nations converged at Rhodes University in Makhanda for a five days workshop centred around the construction of a low-cost radio telescope known as the ‘Transient Array Radio Telescope’ or TART. The workshop hosted at Rhodes’ Continuing Education Centre between 9 – 13 October 2023 aims to ensure that participants receive comprehensive training in assembling the instrument, delving into its electronics, and gaining practical experience in utilising data collected by TART.

Furthermore, the workshop funded by SARAO had eight participants from Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia represented at the event. The workshop is co-hosted by SARAO, Rhodes University, the University of Stellenbosch and the University of Otago in New Zealand, who contributed to the lectures and facilitation of sessions.

Dr Tim Molteno initially developed the TART instrument at the University of Otago to develop and test state-of-the-art calibration and imaging algorithms for radio astronomy. The instrument is cost-effective in its design with an open-source 24-element radio interferometer. In addition, the partnership effort between the University of Otago, Rhodes University and Stellenbosch University led to the first TART instrument, currently stationed at the Waainek Research Facility of Rhodes University in Makhanda, inaugurated in Africa. In collaboration with SARAO, the representatives from Rhodes University have continued to make technological updates to the instrument, resulting in notable improvements in the device’s design, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness.

Source: SARAO

According to Dr Stanley Kuja, Chair of the Local Organising Committee and Project Lead Engineer for TART,  “We are very pleased to extend our collaborative research programmes in space technologies to the eight SKA partner countries in Africa through TART. The instrument offers many exciting research opportunities in different areas such as antenna design (including antenna arrays), calibration and imaging techniques, development of novel techniques for RFI monitoring, development and testing of state-of-the-art machine learning techniques using TART data, electronic system design, EMC metrology, and more”.

“The original TART was a fantastic design by Tim. Many university departments worldwide have put up small single-dish student telescopes. Still, nobody was audacious enough to make a full-scale interferometer – it seemed too complicated and expensive for a single group to tackle. Tim showed how to make one cheaply, using off-the-shelf parts,” commented Professor Oleg Smirnov, the SARAO Research Chair at Rhodes University. He adds, “Following Tim’s lead, we had two students (Sonia Ghosh from Rhodes and Rikus Human from Stellenbosch) build a second-generation TART at Rhodes in a few short months on a minimal budget. This proved that virtually anybody could construct one anywhere – making modern radio astronomy accessible to even the smallest university group. This makes it a great vehicle for building radio astronomy capacity on the African continent.”   

The workshop will follow a “train the trainer” format to equip participants with the technical expertise to construct the instrument for potential deployment in their home countries. In addition, participants will receive instruction in calibration and imaging techniques for radio astronomy, arming them with the essential skills to effectively utilise the instrument once it becomes operational.

“The training workshop marks the commencement of a more comprehensive and integrated TART initiative. The initial phase aims to deploy an instrument in each African VLBI Network (AVN) country. I am excited by the opportunities this instrument brings to African countries in hosting their radio telescope for training students at a fraction of the cost of using a conventional radio telescope. It’s a win for Africa.” commented Carla Michell, the Africa Programme Manager at SARAO.

Rhodes University and SARAO will offer ongoing technical assistance to workshop participants. The overarching vision, post-workshop, involves the installation of a TART instrument in each AVN country. The ultimate goal is to establish a unified TART array spanning the continent, enabling a broader portion of the sky to be accessible for detecting and observing radio transient events.

“We hope to establish a vibrant TART programme with African partners interested in expanding their teaching and research to include radio astronomy. “In the future, the programme may include knowledge exchanges through student workshops, mobility exchanges and research collaborations within the TART African network. The future of this project looks very promising,” stated Dr Bonita de Swardt, SARAO Programme Manager.


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