Senior officials and experts concluded the 6th Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Africa Partner Countries Meeting on Monday, 14 October 2019, noting progress in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN) and other astronomy initiatives aimed at the development of astronomy in the nine African SKA partner countries.
The SKA/AVN partners – Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia – meet annually to provide strategic leadership on matters relating to SKA/AVN projects, as well as other relevant radio astronomy initiatives.
The AVN project aims to establish a network of self-sufficient radio telescopes in Africa through the conversion of redundant telecommunications antennas into radio telescopes, “new-build” telescopes or training facilities with training telescopes. This network will strengthen the science that the international VLBI community can do.
The meeting received updates on the progress made in each partner country and found the work done to be satisfactory, with significant advances in (a) human capacity development initiatives, (b) the strengthening of relevant institutional capacities, (c) the formulation of new academic programmes around physics and astronomy, (d) the roll-out of high-performance computing capability and big data training interventions and (e) science engagement and outreach.
Progress in the roll-out of high-performance computing infrastructure and training was also noted by the meeting, with delegates commending South Africa’s Centre for High-Performance Computing (CHPC) for its good work in building skills and capacity in partner countries.
The meeting noted that research groups from partner countries used the CHPC infrastructure not only for astronomy but also in the fields of material science, chemistry, bioinformatics and earth sciences.
In order to encourage collaboration among researchers, the meeting agreed that the CHPC would convene a science workshop for the different research groups using high-performance computing applications in the SKA Africa partner countries to showcase their work and share experiences.
It was also agreed that the CHPC would bring together relevant stakeholders within partner countries to investigate the possibility of institutionalising and standardising training related to high-performance computing and big data. This would support accreditation at country-level institutions of higher education and training.
Partner countries were unanimous in their appreciation of the partnership opportunities made available under the United Kingdom-South Africa Newton Fund cooperation framework, which had resulted in initiatives such as the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) and DARA big data training programmes. Since 2013, 123 students have received training under the DARA Project.
The meeting noted that DARA, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and the CHPC, in consultation with partner countries, will be working together to develop long-term sustainable plans that would include interventions such as internships and employment for trainees and graduate students.
Several initiatives have been proposed to take affordable steps in the development of radio astronomy capacities in each partner country, such as two-dish interferometry and colocation.
The two-dish interferometer concept involves the provision of a small-scale AVN instrument to universities in partner countries to build capacity in radio astronomy. This instrument will be capable of performing VLBI experiments and useful for both teaching and outreach purposes.
The interferometers will be funded by SARAO, the partner countries, universities and the DARA initiative. The funding will cover single dish science training, basic science, interferometry training, and a VLBI training network across all nine partner countries.
Kenya is considering using its 7,2-metre two-dish interferometer to be part of this initiative.
The meeting was given a progress report on the colocation initiative, which looks at the placement of astronomy telescopes, satellite ground stations, data processing infrastructure and other science instruments on one site in order to make operations sustainable in the long term through cost-sharing (fibre and electricity) and generating revenue.
A colocation pilot phase is underway at the Ghana Radio Astronomy Observatory. The meeting expressed appreciation for the progress in the development of the AVN project, particularly with Ghana being the first of the partner countries of the AVN to complete the conversion of a communications antenna into a functioning radio telescope two years ago.
In Kenya, which has acquired two 7,2-metre dishes, talks with telecommunication companies about acquiring a site in Longonot earmarked for conversion are at an advanced stage. In Zambia, the government is engaging further on funding to relocate a telecommunication mast on their Mwembeshi site.
In Madagascar, the observatory that will administer the Arivonimamo site, which has an old antenna earmarked for the conversion, has now been established. The refurbishment of the rooms and facilities to accommodate the engineers and technicians is almost complete and a memorandum of agreement is ready to be signed by the Minister of National Education and Scientific Research.
Mauritius is offering the Mauritius-Africa Scholarship Scheme, which offers 50 scholarships a year to resident citizens of member states of the African Union in undergraduate and postgraduate studies in astrophysics and other fields (except medicine).
Mozambique has a DARA equivalent programme called DOPPLER, which is a collaboration between Portugal and Mozambique’s astronomy communities. Mozambique now has four astronomers at Eduardo Mondlane University.
In Namibia, the development of a national space science and technology policy and strategy is at an advanced stage. Discussions on Namibia’s collaboration in the Africa Millimetre Telescope project are underway. The country is also in the process of establishing a satellite ground receiving station.
In Botswana, the government is in the process of appointing a project manager for the AVN programme and has also finalised a space science strategy which incorporates the AVN.
The meeting noted that the MeerKAT telescope, the most sensitive telescope of its kind in the world, is performing important science and making significant discoveries. One notable scientific achievement was the production of the clearest view of the centre of the Milky Way so far.