SA to host international astronomy office

2 August 2010

The South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town will soon be host to the International Astronomical Union’s Office for Astronomy Development, which will play a key role in taking astronomy to the developing world.

South Africa beat about 20 countries in its bid to host the office, which will play a central role in coordinating and managing International Astronomical Union educational activities, as well as in recruiting and mobilising volunteers.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) signed an agreement concluding the selection process in Pretoria on Friday. The NRF is responsible for the SA Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory, and the SA Square Kilometre Array project office.

“Finding a home for the Office for Astronomy Development is the first step in the execution of the most ambitious global plan ever conceived in astronomy for development,” said IAU president Robert Williams. “On the behalf of the IAU, I congratulate the SAAO and wish the new Office for Astronomy Development every success in this exciting and important new venture.”

SAAO director Phil Charles said they were delighted at the confidence expressed in them. “Astronomy is all about partnerships, and we look forward to strengthening those we already have, as well as to building new ones, as we use astronomy as a vehicle to introduce science and technology to a new generation.

“South Africa has been visionary in exploiting the country’s natural strategic advantage in astronomy and using it as an integral part of its science and technology strategy,” Charles said.

“We aim to show that the skies are not the limit.”

Southern Africa currently boasts two of the world’s most advanced telescopes – Namibia’s High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) and the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere.

South Africa has also been short-listed, together with Australia, to host the most powerful radio telescope ever, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT), an SKA precursor telescope, is currently being built in South Africa’s Karoo region. Construction of a seven-dish MeerKAT prototype array was recently completed.

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, speaking after the first announcement of South Africa’s winning bid in May, said the award “represents a boost to all our current astronomy-related activities, including our bid to host the SKA.

“South African universities will benefit from their proximity to the office, because of the opportunities for workshops and sharing of experiences.”

Breeding ground

According to Pandor, the Office for Astronomy Development is potentially a breeding ground for African leaders in the field of astronomy and development, with many opportunities for volunteer, contract and part-time work at specific projects.

It will give South Africans access to the biggest network for astronomy outreach and education in the world – a wonderful injection of energy into an already active and effective science education community.

She said that one of the objectives of the office was to take astronomy into parts of the world where there was none at all, and the poor, rural parts of South Africa provided an ideal close location to test and validate projects for wider implementation.

“Everyone is an astronomer at heart – all young people are curious about the universe and their part in it,” Pandor said. “It is not about turning people into professional astronomers; it’s about harnessing their natural curiosity about their environment and turning that into a desire to learn more.”

SAinfo reporter and BuaNews

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