Reports of vandalism of metal parts at the defunct Longonot Earth Station was a low point for the Kenyan space community.
ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru’s response on Twitter was even more disheartening. His response was that the facility has been non-operational for decades and he does not manage private companies since it is now in the hands of Telkom Kenya. While it is true that the facility is outdated, there are proposals to convert it to a radio astronomy research facility. Such conversion has been done in Ghana in collaboration with the South African government.
In a bid to prove to the world’s largest science instrument project, Square Kilometre Array (SKA), South Africa promised to build pre-cursor telescopes in the country and the rest of Africa to help investigate secrets of the universe.
Are we alone in the universe? Was Einstein right? What happened before the formation of stars and planets? These are some of the questions that South Africa and the SKA project seek to answer. In the spirit of Ubuntu, as they say in South Africa, the project extended collaboration to other eight African countries. These are Kenya, Botswana, Namibia, Ghana, Mozambique, Madagascar, Zambia and Mauritius.
While they will not be directly involved in SKA, these member countries will host radio telescopes and research facilities for viewing the sky in the radio band. Kenya was primarily selected because of the defunct Longonot satellite dish and its ideal location in the equator. Just like Ghana has already done, the defunct dish can be converted to listen to signals from deep space. Furthermore, the location of Kenya allows the viewing of the southern and Northern universe.
Many would ask why Kenya should take part in the project while it has pressing problems such as roads, water and food security among others. Firstly, engaging in the program will allow Kenyan education institutions, students and researchers to establish long-term science collaborations. Already, more than 50 young undergraduates have received basic training in antenna instrumentation, signal analysis, scientific computing and programming at the Technical University of Kenya, Ghana and South Africa.
Over 10 Kenyan students have or are in the process of advanced training in Kenya, South Africa, Mauritius and the United Kingdom. This has been done under collaboration with UK’s Newton Fund program, Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA).
With the facility in place, more collaborations will be seen with other researchers from Africa and the rest of the world since science has no boundaries. Moreover, institutions such as the University of Nairobi are already offering degrees in Astronomy and Astrophysics. Such a resource offers a ready laboratory for learners in these subjects to sharpen their scientific skills.
Kenyan universities can also establish research collaborations with their partners in other parts of Africa as is the case in Europe. Secondly, when you train an astronomer, you train an astronomer, an engineer, a computer scientist and a mathematician in one. They gain numerous skills in these subject areas. These skills are directly applicable in other areas such as healthcare, agriculture and computing. For instance, the techniques that astronomers use to analyse signals from deep space to process images of galaxies, black holes among other celestial objects are now applied in healthcare in extracting information from cancer images.
Even the Wi-fi technology we use in our daily lives is a product of a failed radio astronomy research project. This is why the UK through DARA-Big Data project is now sponsoring Kenyan and other African researchers in deriving innovative solutions for healthcare and agriculture from radio astronomy techniques.
Other than the academic benefits, the Longonot Station can be commercialised. It can be used to communicate with satellites to track their movement, send commands and receive data. With many African countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda and Mauritius planning to or launching satellites without ground stations, it can easily be used as a Telemetry and Tracking Command Centre.
Additionally, due to the size of the dishes, it can act as a deep space communication centre with unmanned spacecraft. It can also be a data storage centre for Low Earth Orbit earth observation satellites passing over Kenya to reduce the data reception period.
Lastly, abandoning the defunct station might kill Kenya’s quest to become a regional space science powerhouse. Our neighbours such as Ethiopia have demonstrated their ability to take over if things remain bleak as they are now. With one satellite launched in 2019, a planned launch in October 2020 and a working optical astronomy observatory, nothing stops Ethiopia from taking over from Kenya.
This might lead to the loss of scholarship funding for students in related fields, exclusion from the Pan-African Radio Astronomy project and further brain drain.
Bonface Osoro is a postgraduate student at the University of Strathclyde, United Kingdom with keen interest on Low Earth Orbit (LEO) communication, radar and navigation satellites: firstname.lastname@example.org.