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SPACE SCIENCE

Journey to the stars — South Africa’s new astronomers unlocking secrets of the cosmos

Journey to the stars — South Africa’s new astronomers unlocking secrets of the cosmos
A South African Astronomical Observatory field station in Sutherland on 28 January 2015. (Photo: Flickr)

Twenty years ago the country had only 40 astrophysicists, all white. Now programmes to foster African talent have paid off, with hundreds qualified.

South African astronomy started an important journey two decades ago, when an initiative to attract and train future scientists in the field welcomed its first group of students under the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme.

World class facilities have been established during this period, the most notable of which are the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and the MeerKAT radio telescope, a precursor to the international Square Kilometre Array. They add to the South African Astronomical Observatory and Hartebeesthoek Radio Observatory which existed already.

The National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme has played a vital role in ensuring that these facilities were not simply operated for the benefit of international partners. It has also contributed individuals with crucial data analysis skills to the country’s growing hi-tech workforce.

As astronomers who were part of this journey – organisers, contributors and beneficiaries – we are using the 20th anniversary date to reflect on the programme’s impact and its significance for the country.

The history

South Africa’s astronomical history, spanning more than 200 years, took a leap in 2000 with Cabinet’s approval for the ­construction of the Southern African Large Telescope.

Beyond its scientific impact, the idea was to attract and nurture young talent, addressing shortages in scientific and engineering fields in South Africa. At the time, there were only about 40 astronomers with PhDs in the country. All were white. This was the result of the racially skewed education system during the apartheid era.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Eavesdropping on the sky: The backstory of MeerKAT and SKA

In 2001, astronomers began preparing for SALT and future projects. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) emerged as an opportunity to host a big international radio telescope which could, among other things, investigate the beginnings of the universe. Unfortunately, the shortage of South African astronomers posed a threat to the success of the two projects, and to Africa’s participation.

Developing a pipeline

Becoming a professional astronomer requires a PhD in astronomy, physics, or a related subject. It takes about 10 years to qualify after completing secondary school. At that time fewer than 1% of black school leavers qualified to study for a BSc in physics or astronomy.

It became clear that universities needed to start cooperating if the landscape was to change. The country’s small astronomical community was spread across eight universities and two national facilities.

A decision was taken to pool resources to establish the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme. In this way, university lecturers and professionals at the national observatories could all contribute to teaching, while students could choose from a wide range of research projects.

This collaboration, including the organisation that became the South African National Space Agency, focused on guiding students through honours and master’s degrees. It emphasised cooperation over institutional interests and targeted young scientists, especially those from previously disadvantaged communities.

The primary objectives were clear:

  • Attract students post-bachelor of science;
  • Recruit from other countries in Africa;
  • Entice school leavers into BSc physics programmes; and
  • Make participation in the programme a selling point for all participating universities.

Bursaries covering basic needs were crucial to attract smart students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Funding from private foundations, particularly from the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation and the Canon Collins Trust, added to very basic grants from the National Research Foundation.

Today, the government’s Department of Science and Innovation is the primary funder.

Grants are adequate, rather than generous. Nevertheless, students have developed successful careers through the programme, transforming astronomy and space science in South Africa and beyond.

Programme participant Pfesesani van Zyl said: “The journey to SALT was a truly transformative experience for me… As a child growing up in a small town, the notion of pursuing a career in astronomy seemed like an unattainable dream, especially as a female of colour… However, that visit shattered those limiting beliefs.”

As former beneficiary Roger Deane, now a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, put it, the programme was pivotal in giving us exposure to the leading astronomers in the country… This was extremely helpful in assessing astronomy as a career.

Track record

By mid-2023, the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme had produced 439 honours graduates and 215 master’s degrees in astrophysics and space science. Another 27 honours and 21 master’s students are set to graduate shortly, and similar numbers of students will complete their degrees in 2024.

A 2023 survey of programme graduates had 230 respondents, including 53 graduates from 19 other African countries. The largest numbers were from Uganda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia and Sudan. Many have returned home.

Former participant Miriam Nyamai said: “Collaboration with international researchers through the programme enabled me to do world-class research, attend international conferences, and give talks on my work.”

Impact

The impact of the programme’s graduates extends far beyond academia. Many have embarked on successful careers across diverse sectors, including industry, education and government.

Graduates have participated in exciting astronomical discoveries. These include producing the first images of black holes with the Event Horizon Telescope, finding some of the most distant galaxies yet known, and using SALT to investigate the remnants of some very massive binary stars and unusual active black holes at great distances.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Empowering entrepreneurs will critically boost Africa’s space innovation ecosystem

The work of many individuals has been recognised by national and international bodies, and programme graduates are in key teaching and research posts in South African universities. More than 30 are employed in the national astronomy facilities and the national space agency, while some have prestigious positions elsewhere in the world. South Africa now has more than 200 qualified astronomers, not all of them from the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme.

Nevertheless, it remains a challenge to fill vacant astronomer posts in South Africa. Many factors contribute to this, including funding, opportunities outside academia, and the lack of clear career paths. The National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme can only ever be part of the solution to these complex systemic problems.

Future directions

The programme has evolved since its establishment. Students now have to navigate extensive volumes of intricate data of different kinds, from various sources.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are in­­dispensable. Students must know what these tools can and cannot do as they push the boundaries of our comprehension. This is a challenge for both students and their mentors.

The main obstacle now lies, as it did 20 years ago, in helping university staff to collaborate across institutions in such a way that their work is recognised and rewarded. This requires senior administrators to understand that inter-university collaborations are an investment in their own institutions as well as in the advancement of South African science.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme, a two-day symposium has been organised in January 2024, hosted at the University of Cape Town. DM

This article first appeared in The Conversation.

Patricia Ann Whitelock is a former director of the South African Astronomical Observatory and an honorary professor at UCT. Daniel Cunnama is a science engagement astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory. Rosalind Skelton is a SALT astronomer and head of research at the South African Astronomical Observatory.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hari Seldon says:

    You also dont know what you are talking about.

    Facts:
    The three authors are not journalists – they are scientists and senior scientists.
    There were 40 astronomers in SA in 2000 and now there are over 200
    Cape Town has just announced the build of one of the worlds 10 most powerful supercomputers to support the SKA project
    The SKA is one of planet earth’s largest science project – and its located in South Africa
    The data pipeline for the SKA is equivalent to the DE-CIX in Germany – one of the largest data exchanges in the world (roughly 8 terabits per second) – its that big. Its an absolutely massive amount of data coming into Cape Town and Perth.
    The project has been led by South Africa scientists and the precursor Meerkat array has exceeded international expectations (you can research the papers generated by it to see for yourself)

    Following this – Cape Town is set to become a global leader in big data science and astronomy and has already seen a profusion of new courses in big data, data science, associated engineering courses and astronomy related courses at UCT, UWC and Stellenbosch.

  • Madelein Barnard says:

    Dr Sharmila Goedhart finished her Phd in 2004 according to her Linkedin biography, so 20 years ago not all astrophysicists were white? Just asking.

  • Mpiyakhe Dhlamini says:

    One of the best things the government ever did. Brilliant.

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