Launched in 2019, the African Astronomical Society (AfAS) is a diverse and inclusive Pan-African society of professional and amateur astronomers, which aims to create a globally competitive astronomy community in Africa. The mission of AfAS is to be the voice of astronomy on the continent and to address the challenges faced by Africa through the promotion and advancement of astronomy. In this exclusive interview, we speak with the society’s president, Dr Jamal Mimouni, who discusses astronomical achievements in Africa and how AfAS supports and advances astronomy research and education across the entire continent.
Please start by sharing some inspiring examples of recent astronomical achievements in Africa.
Very good. Let me dwell on three examples. The first one will lead us to Senegal where a team of some 30 young Senegalese, some with physics backgrounds and others from the amateur community, are undertaking regular occultation campaigns with help from NASA. One project they are working on is the Arrokoth campaign to find a suitable Kuiper belt object for the New Horizons spacecraft to fly by.
On the night of September 23, 2020, they were able to successfully observe the occultation of the Polymel asteroid of an 11th magnitude star, which lasted less than two seconds. This should help the LUCY probe mission to the Trojan asteroids, which will be flown over six of them, including Polymel, in 2027. In addition, this success story helps train young science students, paving the way for careers in astronomy or space science and producing the science of direct use.
My second example will bring us to Morocco in North Africa, where the Oukaimeden Observatory is situated near Marrakech. In synergy with researchers at the Department of Astronomy at Cadi Ayyad University, this observatory is producing great science as well as training local students to become professional astronomers. In addition, there is a dynamic and ambitious program of installing optical facilities enticing various international partners thanks to the pure sky of the High Atlas Mountains where this high-perched observatory is situated.
The Oukaimeden Observatory distinguished itself by participating in the discovery of the ‘seven sisters’ planetary system of the TRAPPIST-1 star in 2016 – seven rocky planets resembling our Earth and situated a stone’s throw away (well, 40 light-years, which is a trifle of a distance compared to the huge expanse of space), and offering a glimpse to the spectacular variety of planetary systems that probably fill our Galaxy.
Finally, I shouldn’t leave the list of examples without mentioning South Africa, which is a heavyweight actor on the astronomical world scene. There lies a superb optical facility on the Sutherland plateau dominated by SALT, the largest optical telescope in the world, and the future Square Kilometer Array (SKA) – a multi-billion-dollar international project which South Africa was selected to be home for. In the meantime, the MeerKAT telescope array in the Karoo desert and a precursor of the SKA is delivering world-class science. For example, from a recently released picture of unmatched resolution, one can admire the intricate details of powerful radio emissions from an enormous rotating black hole in the elliptical galaxy IC 4296. It displays a combination of cosmic features never seen before, providing a window into the inner mechanisms within giant radio galaxies.
What is your area of expertise, and why did you pursue a career in this field?
Well, it all started from a real passion for the sky, particularly the science of the stars. I have been fascinated by those little dots in the sky from a tender age, even before I knew how to write any equation. But the physics of stars, the burning nuclear phases going on within them, and their prodigious diversity, which can be related to their colour and spectrum, captivated me.
Later, I started as a student in theoretical physics in Algeria, graduating with a BSc in 1977 from Algiers University. I then focused on particle physics when doing my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania and finally turned to astroparticle physics and cosmology in my professional life.
For the past two decades, I have also been very involved in setting up the basis of astrophysics in my country, as the head of Astrophysics Studies in the physics department of my university – the first and only such program in Algeria. I am also involved with the National Aurès Observatory project, which will be the first such astronomy facility in Algeria since the independence of my country.
But I have also devoted an increasing amount of effort and time to the connection of science and society, particularly the cultural dimension of scientific debate in the Arab-Muslim world. I have developed a keen interest in the philosophy of contemporary science and spreading scientific culture in the developing world. As such, I have been involved in public debates and have lectured to various audiences worldwide.
On the ‘ground’, I have acted for decades as an adviser and resource person to amateur astronomy associations in Algeria. I am also the founder and head of the well-known Sirius Astronomy Association. My peregrinations throughout Africa for lecturing and outreach made me well-known enough that the African astronomical community has thought of electing me as the first President of AfAS in March 2019.
‘The key objective of AfAS is to cultivate and encourage collaboration among countries in Africa and collaborations between Africa and the rest of the world in scientific, educational, and outreach astronomical activities.’
Congratulations on being elected as the first President of AfAS. Please explain how this wonderful society facilitates collaboration between astronomy professionals both within Africa and beyond.
The key objective of AfAS is to cultivate and encourage collaboration among countries in Africa as well as collaborations between Africa and the rest of the world in scientific, educational, and outreach astronomical activities. AfAS is also dedicated to making every attempt to support collaboration, rather than competition, with other relevant initiatives on the continent by bringing together complementary resources, networks, and expertise.
AfAS itself also has agreements with other organisations, such as the International Astronomical Union Office for Astronomy for Development, with which we have recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding, which is aimed primarily at strengthening development through astronomy throughout the African continent. We are also working towards various flagship projects that aim to create networks for optical and radio astronomy, outreach and education, and High-Performance Computing.
Our annual conference attracts hundreds of participants from across Africa and different parts of the world and promotes discussions on collaboration so that the community can be better organised for astronomy research, education, outreach, and development on the continent. AfAS also organises various workshops, webinars, and special sessions at other meetings and conferences throughout the year to develop relationships with our community and strategic partners from relevant organisations.
In what other ways does AfAS aim to advance astronomy research?
AfAS has developed a Science Strategy that aims to create an interlinked and world-class African astronomy community that contributes to the advancement of human knowledge. Through this, we hope to advance astronomy by developing strategies, facilitating interdisciplinary collaborations, encouraging cross-border engagements, and stimulating human capital development.
We have recently embarked on creating a science portal to develop and disseminate open-source resources that will benefit astronomy. This will also involve databases of astronomy expertise, active research areas, infrastructures across Africa and the African diaspora. We are also conducting an astronomy survey on the continent to help us identify ‘focus areas’ of research groups in Africa and resources available (and required) in different locations. This will play a role in encouraging African countries to have appropriately aligned strategies.
AfAS is committed to increasing the number of African astronomers and the number of astronomers working in Africa. Therefore, we aim to advance astronomy research and secure its future by investing in early-career research through our Seed Research Grant, which supports research projects in astronomy (including Astrophysics and Space Science) conducted by postgraduate students and early-career researchers based in Africa.
Our future goal is to be further involved in infrastructure support, such as the development of intelligent telescope networks, High-Performance Computing for astronomy and interdisciplinary research, site testing of optical telescopes, radio astronomy and dish conversion, the African Very Large Baseline Interferometer Network, the African Millimetre Telescope and the Event Horizon Telescope.
‘We want to use astronomy to inspire young people to pursue STEM studies and careers.’
How does the Society plan to improve STEM education in schools across the continent?
AfAS has established Outreach and Education committees with a philosophy to be at the service of the astronomy community in Africa and to encourage the appreciation of the significance of astronomy for society, with a particular focus on the future generation.
We want to use astronomy to inspire young people to pursue STEM studies and careers. We are already doing this by setting up programs and undertaking well-targeted actions in this area. Our goal is to increase science and astronomy literacy across Africa and enhance the presence of astronomy by creating and curating reliable and accessible resource material on astronomy for the general public, school students, and teachers.
We will also work to facilitate partnerships with national institutions to help establish astronomy research programmes in more tertiary institutions in Africa and develop materials for schools and the public, which use astronomy to promote careers in STEM.
Tell us about some of your other public outreach efforts.
The Outreach Committee is the key element in the actions undertaken by AfAS to promote astronomy and spread astronomical knowledge, even though it is primarily a professional astronomy association.
Such outreach enables the public to see the inner workings of scientific research and the grandiose cosmic picture it brings while also challenging irrational thinking, which impedes social development. We are working to establish and coordinate a network of astronomy outreach professionals across Africa, building on what is already in place. We already have several working groups that focus on various critical areas of interest. Each of these groups has a definite focus, with members with expertise and passion in those areas. These groups will provide valuable service to the community and will be expanded as needed.
For example, the Affordable Mobile Planetaria group is tasked with developing, testing and authenticating various prototypes for affordable mobile planetaria that are suitable for amateur astronomy associations, schools and colleges, and science organisations at a fraction of the cost of what is available on the shelf from commercial companies.
The Amateur Radio Telescopes group aims to develop a suite of radio telescope designs appropriate for amateur astronomers, schools and universities, facilitate a network of interested partners, and develop a program for the construction and usage of these telescopes. This work is motivated by the presence of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) megaproject in Africa.
We are currently looking at a more emphasised promotion of astronomy in countries where its presence is minimal. We also support the continuing and exemplary work of amateur astronomy associations and assist in forming new associations, emphasising regions where astronomy is not yet well developed.
Finally, tell us a bit about the African Network of Women in Astronomy (AfNWA) and its role in increasing female participation in the astronomy community.
AfNWA is a bold initiative aimed at connecting women working in astronomy and related fields in Africa. It was established in September 2020 as one of the committees under AfAS. It aims to empower women in sciences, especially in astronomy-related research areas.
Indeed, according to the latest report of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the number of female astronomy researchers is less than 30% on average. With AfNWA, we would like to guarantee the future participation of girls and women at all levels in astronomy and science developments in Africa. Our main objectives are improving the status of women in science in Africa and using astronomy to inspire more girls to pursue STEM careers.
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