Susan Murabana is the co-founder and the CEO of The Travelling Telescope, a social enterprise dedicated to promoting astronomy in Africa. Her team takes their large portable telescopes and mobile planetarium to schools and public spaces, engaging students and families about the world around us.
In an interview with Susan, she explained what the company has been up to, their current partners, the effect of covid 19, amongst other things.
Can you please walk me through your company’s background?
The Travelling Telescope was registered in 2014. We have held several events for the public where we worked with hundreds of schools and hundreds of thousands of kids. One of the events was The Nairobi Star Party, where we invited families from every walk of life to look through our telescopes and learn about the wonders of our universe. We have also worked with lodges providing astronomy as an extra service to their guests.
We first started our operation with just a telescope and have added a fixed and mobile planetarium to our products. We are the only astronomy company in the Eastern African region with globally competitive services. We are a youth partner of Airbus Foundation through The Airbus Little Engineers program and other local organisations in Kenya.
You are dedicated to promoting social change using astronomy educational and entertaining tools; how do you achieve this?
Whether we use our telescope or mobile planetarium, we have often found that our tools draw attention and excitement irrespective of age and social-economic background. We often try to use methods that are engaging and entertaining. For example, during the pandemic, we created some songs to educate kids about asteroids and eclipses. We feel that astronomy is a huge part of our everyday life and a reminder of how unique and intelligent we are.
We also invite people to look through our 12-inch computerised telescope or visit our planetarium and enjoy the wonders of our universe; as they do that, we hope that they have a sense of how small-yet important our services are and how unique our planet is and why we need to take care of it.
As Airbus Foundation’s youth partner, please discuss your success stories and important milestones.
The Airbus Foundation projects were a wonderful addition to our astronomy story. We introduced a robotics workshop in schools across Kenya where the kids were introduced to 3D modelling programs. The kids are now equipped with different skill sets that they can use.
It is also important for us to remind these kids that there is a huge space industry waiting for them, demonstrating how astronomers, engineers, computer programmers, communication experts, lawyers and other fields each have a role to play in the space industry. We educated them that a huge team has made it possible for every astronaut that goes to space. Even with our telescope, there is a team of engineers who built it. We have met kids who are now interested in building rockets because they have had access to the space programs through our projects with Airbus Foundation.
Currently, we are working with students on Airbus Foundation Discovery Space (AFDS), a virtual program designed by Airbus in partnership with European Space Agency (ESA) and Autodesk. The students design various objects – houses, aeroplanes, space suits and rockets using 3D design programs like Tinkercad and Fusion- 360. From this initiative, the students learn more about the space industry, and we are monitoring their progress to ensure that bright students register for the upcoming global competition.
What are the activities involved in Global Astronomy month?
With the lockdown in Kenya, schools are on a break, and April is Global Astronomy Month. We wanted to engage students in a program to access more skills and get creative using their computer. The Airbus Foundation program is designed for this. The students would have to sign up and join us in our zoom classroom for a lesson in 3D modelling using tinkercad.
We intended to incorporate more projects, but we have moved all our programs online with the lockdown protocol in Kenya. We are also redesigning our planetarium and inviting a time to visit and, with our telescopes, see the beautiful, unpolluted equatorial Kenyan night skies.
In May 2021, we will partake in the Asteroid Search Campaign, which is part of the International Astronomical Search Collaboration program, an avenue to have a few other projects for young students in Kenya.
What are the challenges you currently face? How do you plan to overcome these challenges?
In March, the Kenyan government announced another lockdown due to another strain of the virus that has raised the infected number. The restrictions have made it difficult for us to travel within the country or even organise programs as large clusters are not allowed. We can only hope that the vaccines and lockdown protocols help, and hopefully, we can go back to doing what we love.
Most of the schools that we go to are in remote areas with terrible roads, and our equipment- telescope and mobile planetarium-are fragile and expensive, so we have to be careful while in transit. Since most of the schools in the remote areas have bad cellular receptions and poor internet coverage, it has made our task harder because most of our work has been moved online, and these young students do not have access to the internet or gadgets to work with.
One variable that we can not plan for is the bad weather condition. We have had to deal with spontaneous weather conditions, making it hard for even our advanced telescope to make observations.
We also need access to more funds to do this on a larger scale and reach a wider audience. to this end, we are working on a few collaborations and partnership with governmental and non-governmental institutions.
Can you also talk briefly about your partners?
We are youth partners of Airbus Foundation through Airbus little Engineer program. We are also partners with Astronomers Without Borders and the African Planetarium Association.
Liverpool John Moores University is also one of our partners, and with their help, we are developing a Moon app.
What other projects are you currently undertaking? What future projects are you planning?
The Moon App – We are currently working to build an app in partnership with Liverpool John Moores University. The app will be fitted with various information about the Moon, and kids also get to know the different lunar phases and detailed lunar calendar. The app will also be interactive and have an educational gaming aspect for the kids to learn through gaming.
We are also working on Space Club. We have noticed that there is a need to nurture the interest of kids, and the club will provide a platform for our kids to explore their different interests in space by using documentaries, songs and photographs, as well as art and creative session, to educate themselves and their peers about our universe. The club will be designed solely for the kids. We will only support the club with our resources and advice.
Tell me about your current staff strength.
We currently have only 3 staff members. We have a small group with dissimilar strength, and we all work together to move the company forward.
Daniel Chu Owen is the Technical Director and Co-founder, while Bedan Kimani is our IOS/Android developer.
How do you plan to bring other stakeholders together from other African nations to increase the reach?
We are working towards getting more partners. Partnerships with local and international organisations would help increase our current capacity. With more partners, we would be able to do more for our immediate environment and build in that achievement by networking with other African nations.
We would also take advantage of platforms like the African Planetarium Association (APA), the African Astronomical Society, the World Space Week, Astronomers without Borders. We also plan to reach out to Space agencies.