Opinion: World’s Largest Radio Telescope Will Continue African Astronomy Tradition

Written by Dana Sanchez

Construction is expected to begin in 2017 on South Africa’s Square Kilometre Array, the world’s largest radio telescope, and its most powerful. It will be used by scientists to understand how the universe evolved and how stars and galaxies form and change, according to a report in TheConversation.

The Square Kilometre Array is expected to stimulate interest in citizen astronomy across Africa, which already has a rich tradition of watching the night skies, according to Felix Donkor, a doctoral researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand.

The groundbreaking, continent-wide telescope will have a central computer with the processing power of about 100 million personal computers.

This huge project is designed to take down many roadblocks to astronomical progress, TheGuardian reported. “These include searching for the first celestial objects to form in the universe, investigating whether we need to develop a new theory of gravity, and looking for the building blocks of life in space.”

The Square Kilometre Array will peer back into the dark ages and map what has happened in space since then, according to TheGuardian. Astronomers will be able to see the cosmic cataclysms taking place before their eyes.

The project will test general relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravity. For all its remarkable success, general relativity may not be able to describe the strong gravitational fields such as those found near black holes. It is hoped that the Square Kilometre Array will show the weak links in Einstein’s work and provide vital clues needed for a deeper understanding of gravity, said Stuart Clark, an astronomy writer.

South Africa doesn’t have the market on the Square Kilometer Array. It will have sites in Australia and elsewhere in Africa. Eight other African countries will provide sites for radio telescopes that feed the network, according to TheConversation. These include Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.

The distribution of these countries provides an opportunity to stimulate interest in astronomy in Africa through citizen science, Donkor said in TheConversation.

Citizen science is basically work done by volunteers — public participation and collaboration in scientific research without pay to increase scientific knowledge. People share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs.

Africa’s night sky has been used traditionally for navigation, time keeping and fertility cycles, Donkor said. It inspired East Africa’s Swahili, people in Eritrea and Djibouti and the Tuareg in the Sahara, renowned for their navigation skills.

You don’t need a doctorate to count stars in constellations to determine light pollution, Donkor said.

Volunteers can identify and track solar storms, observe and create light curves of variable stars, take and upload astrophotographs to a database of outer planet images and search images for tracks left by interplanetary dust grains, among other things.

They can join space-related activities, identifying and recording changes and features in many solar system bodies.

Many countries in Africa have space clubs, planetariums and astronomy societies associated with universities.

Science blogs, social media, and TED Talks have helped make scientific knowledge more accessible through the media. Similarly, citizen science programs are bringing the experimental side of science to the doorstep of lay people.