Some Significant Developments Africa is Making in Space Science and Astronomy.

Astronomy is not new in Africa as early astronomical observations were carried out by early Africans. It is worth noting that Africa is home to the largest collection of stone calendars in the world, all scattered throughout every corner of the continent. A recent discovery shows that the world’s oldest known astronomical stone circle, believed to have been constructed over 75,000 years ago, was found amidst thousands of ancient stone structures on the Mpumalanga plateau in South Africa. It has been established that the people who lived here had quite an extensive understanding of astronomy, from the stone calendars to the alignment of the stone ruins. However, Africa has not been part of the modern era of astrological and space science development until very recently. African nations after colonisation did not show interest in astronomy and space Science until recently. Environmental challenges in the continent have made them recognize the importance of astronomy, space science and satellite technology for improving some of their main socioeconomic and ecological challenges.

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One of the thousands of known stone circles in the Mpumalanga region of South Africa

The development of modern astronomy in Africa started with earlier investments in observatories by mainly north African and southern African countries. Until recently, only Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Namibia and South Africa had established satellite programmes. The National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics (NRIAG) in Egypt established more than 110 years ago. Morocco and Algeria had Optical observatories. The Southern African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) were already well established in Southern African and the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) in Namibia. Later, there was an increase in investments in Space science and research in the continent as South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria and Algeria launched their satellite programmes. In recent years, many smaller African countries have started research activities in astronomy and space science and have been engaged in institutional developments, human capacity development, scientific research and networking.

Institutional Development

Based on the article, “Development in Astronomy and Space Science” authored by several astronomers and space scientists from twenty-two (22) universities, and astronomy and space science organizations, and published in Nature, there are some significant achievements in the development of institutions dedicated to the advancements of astronomy, and space science and research in Africa. In North Africa, Egypt’s National Research Institute of Astronomy established the National Data Center, the Kottamia Center of Scientific Excellence in Astronomy and Space Sciences, and operates the Kottamia Astronomical Observatory (KAO), one of the oldest observatories in Africa. Algeria has the Centre de Recherche en Astronomie Astrophysique et Géophysique and the Bouzaréah Observatory. Space research is mainly undertaken at the Centre des Techniques Spatiales (CTS) at Arzew. Morocco inauguration of the Oukaïmeden Observatory in 2007 and has a High Energy Physics and Astrophysics Laboratory that is playing an important role in Moroccan astrophysical development. Morocco has just launched a satellite called Mohammed VI-A, part of the space science programme led by the Royal Centre for Remote Sensing.

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The Ghana Radio Astronomy Observatory, Kuntunse. The Ghanaian engineers were trained by South African experts. Credit: Ghana Space Science and Technology Institute

In the East and northeast Africa, the Institute of Geophysics, Space Science and Astronomy was established in 2015 in Ethiopia as a national seismological, geomagnetic and geodetic observatory. The Ethiopian Space Science Society played a crucial role in establishing the Entoto Observatory and Research Centre in 2013. In 2016, the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute (ESSTI) was established. In February 2017, the Kenya Space Agency was established and in May 2018, the first Kenyan remote sensing CubeSat, developed in collaboration with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, was launched. In 2013, Sudan established the Institute of Space Research and Aerospace (ISRA) for developing different fields of space science and aerospace technology. In addition, and in relation to space science, Sudan’s National Centre for Research established the Institute of Remote Sensing and Seismology.

In West Africa, the Ghana Space Science and Technology Institute (GSSTI) was established in 2012. In 2017, The Ghana Radio Astronomy Observatory (GRAO) was established and Ghana launched its first remote sensing CubeSat to be used mainly for coastline long-term monitoring and mapping, and for HCD. In Nigeria, the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) was established in 1998 as the main body for implementing Nigeria’s space programme, which includes the development of basic space science and technology, remote sensing, satellite meteorology, communication and information technology, and defence and security. Since 2003, Nigeria has launched three satellites to space. Burkina Faso is working to establish an astronomical observatory for research on Mount Djogari and install the 1-m MarLy optical telescope that was moved from the La Silla Observatory in Chile to Burkina Faso in 2010. Senegal also has plans to develop research astronomy and working with NASA in the experiment to observe a stellar occultation by the trans-Neptunian object 2014 MU.

In southern Africa, South Africa (SA) continues to be the major player in Astronomy and Space Science. It is the only country in the south with an established national space agency (SANSA) and has launched two satellites. The University of Namibia (UNAM) in Namibia is one of the founding members of HESS, a system of five imaging atmospheric Cherenkov telescopes, and one of the leading gamma-ray observatories in the world. The Namibian Institute of Space Technology (NIST) was established under the Namibia University of Science and Technology. There are plans to build the first millimetre-wave radio telescope in Africa in Namibia (together with the Netherlands).

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Project

Africa and Austrailia is home the SKA, an array of telescopes that will be so sensitive that it will be able to detect an airport radar on a planet tens of light years away. The SKA will be the largest radio telescope ever built and will produce science that changes our understanding of the universe. In Africa, the SKA will be built in South Africa and eight other African Countries (SKA AVN partners): Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia.

Human Capacity Development

The establishment of astronomy and space research bodies has resulted in a significant human capacity development in the continent and the progress often in collaboration with international institutions, is remarkable. The number of employed researchers in Astronomy and Space Science has increased dramatically. Countries like South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Ethiopia, Uganda, Namibia, Kenya, Sudan and Nigeria have established graduate trainee programmes at their universities, while many others are in the process of doing so. Public awareness and outreach have increased exponentially in almost all countries and at the same time networking among African institutions and between African and international institutions improved significantly. From 2000 the South African National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme have trained hundreds of MSc students in Astronomy and Space Science from a variety of African countries and Since 2013, the International Astronomical Union’s Office of Astronomy for Development has supported many projects related to Human Capacity Development and networking across the continent.

African Space Agency

The African Union (AU) took important steps in promoting the development of Astronomy and Space Science on a continental scale for improving some of the main socioeconomic and environmental challenges that Africa is facing. The organization recently developed the Common Africa Position on the Post-2015 Development Agenda to define a framework facilitating the achievement of the (UN SDGs). Continental initiatives. To help achieve these goals, the African Space Agency was recently established.

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