Aiming for the Stars, and a Chunk of Rock, in Senegal

This first appeared on The New York Times - Written by Dionne Searcey

Outside Dakar, people got a look at the heavens last week through one of the New Horizons space program’s telescopes.CreditTomas Munita for The New York Time

When Salma Sylla was a little girl, she tried to find relief from Senegal’s steamy hot season by retreating to the roof of her home to sleep. Restless and overheated, she would lie awake staring at the stars.

The area where she lived outside Dakar, the capital, had no electricity, and the heavens sparkled. She tried to count the stars, realizing more shone on some nights than on others.

Ms. Sylla, now 37, was intrigued. But studying the stars in Senegal was not easy: High school courses were limited; libraries rarely had books on space; telescopes were few and expensive.

Not much has improved since Ms. Sylla was a girl; astronomy offerings are extremely limited in Senegal’s universities. But officials here hope to change that, as part of a mission to improve science, technology, engineering and math skills by bolstering the country’s university programs and building a science and research center.

The undertaking is part of “Emerging Senegal,” a broad development strategy by President Macky Sall that also includes plans for a planetarium.

The effort got a lift last week, when Senegal welcomed a team of more than three dozen scientists from the United States and France, part of NASA’s New Horizons program. The scientists fanned out across the countryside in hopes of observing the silhouette cast by an ancient chunk of rock orbiting beyond Pluto as it passed in front of a bright star.

The viewing was intended to help the team prepare for when the plutonium-powered New Horizons spacecraft passes by the object — nicknamed Ultima Thule (Beyond the Known World) — on New Year’s Eve.

Brigitte Anderson, an American scientist, set a telescope with the help of Modou Mbaye, a Senegalese scientist.CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times

“This is the farthest exploration of anything in space that has ever taken place, by quite a lot,” said Alan Stern, project leader for NASA’s New Horizons mission. “We are way, way out there.”

For the scientists, coming to Senegal was a process of elimination. Most of the areas that offered the best viewing were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The other options — in neighboring Mali, for example — were in areas patrolled by violent extremists.

The countryside of Senegal is peaceful, parts of it do not have electricity, and many rural areas are sparsely populated. That was a bonus for the scientists, who wanted a clear sky, free of light. Still, Senegal was a risky proposition. The area is on the cusp of the rainy season, and cloudy skies threatened to block the event, which occurred early Saturday and lasted less than a second.

Scientists are still evaluating data from the viewing, but the skies turned out to be clear and they are hopeful.

Senegal was an enthusiastic host. About two dozen Senegalese astronomers and scientists, including Ms. Sylla, accompanied the New Horizons team in the field and contributed to the viewing.

African countries have racked up their own space achievements. Moroccan astronomers have discovered comets, asteroids and planets outside our solar system. Ghana’s first satellite is now orbiting the earth. Students in Tunisia have organized public events to observe the sky, even though they do not have an observatory.

“Astronomy is virtually as popular in Africa as it is everywhere in the world,” said David Baratoux, the president of the African Initiative for Planetary Sciences and Space, who is based in France.

The biggest hindrance is money. The United States spends more on its space program than the value of Senegal’s entire economy. The 21 high-powered telescopes brought by the New Horizons team were nearly double the number of telescopes available in all of Senegal.

The New Horizons team hopes that the telescopes in Senegal and a handful in Colombia, with some assistance from the Hubble Space Telescope, will answer some questions about Ultima Thule, part of the Kuiper belt, before its spacecraft arrives. Is it shaped like a potato, for instance, or is it actually two objects orbiting each other?

Last week, at a late-night dress rehearsal for Saturday’s viewing, Diarra Dieng, an applied physics student in Dakar, tweaked the settings on a $3,500 telescope, guided by a NASA scientist.

“This is amazing,” she said, as she tried to train the telescope on the correct star.

Instructors at Ms. Dieng’s high school in Dakar had encouraged her to pursue studies in science, but she was skeptical at first. “I never knew girls could do this kind of work,” she said.

The New Horizons team had spread across the lawn of a conference center to work out equipment kinks ahead of the viewing. The biggest problem came when someone accidentally turned on the sprinkler system.

The scientists let anyone milling about the nearby parking lot get a view of Saturn and Mars. Students who had studied astronomy through online courses joined a long line. Fathers hoisted small children to the eyepiece. The minister of higher education took a peek.

“Mmmmm,” was all one woman could say, shaking her head as if in disbelief.

The higher education minister, Mary Teuw Niane, said he hoped the team’s visit would foster future student collaborations with NASA.

Anne Verbiscer, an astronomy professor at the University of Virginia and part of the New Horizons team, said she valued working with Senegalese students and could relate to overcoming hurdles in pursuing a career in astronomy.

Dr. Verbiscer was 5 when a human first walked on the moon in 1969. Transfixed by the Apollo mission, she wanted to be an astronaut for Halloween. So she shopped for a costume with her mother and finally found one: It was in the boys’ section.

In Senegal, Ms. Sylla remembers her grandmother telling her the stars were obscured some nights to help hyena hunters go undetected. Her quest to find out what was really happening in the skies led her to persist. She cobbled together studies at Senegalese institutions and abroad.

Today, Ms. Sylla is the first Ph.D. student in astronomy at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar.

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