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Ministers launch Ghana radio astronomy telescope

[ACCRA] South Africa and Ghana’s science ministers have expressed high hopes that the new Ghana Radio Astronomy Observatory, launched on 24 August, will up Africa’s science game and contribute to the continent’s development.

It is imperative for Africa’s scientists to work in Africa, South African science and technology minister Naledi Pandor told the African Square Kilometre Array ministerial meeting, which preceded the launch. “Big science infrastructure projects attract scientific talent,” she said.

Her Ghanaian counterpart, Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, welcomed the facility’s role in boosting science training in Ghana. He said that while it was great that African computer scientists, astronomers and engineers were routinely trained in South Africa, “we should be careful not to see this as a one-way affair”. He said that science, technology, and innovation had to have tangible results in terms of employment, patents, new businesses, and contributing to economic growth. If these were not realised, Ghanaians "will think we are wasting money," he said.

Astronomy is being pushed as a high-tech field to develop skills on the continent, and to build technical capacity within African countries. The SKA, when built, will be the largest radio telescope in the world. It will have hundreds of dishes and thousands of antenna in Australia and Africa. While the first phase of SKA construction will focus on South Africa and Australia, the second phase — expected to commence in the mid-2020s — will include satellite stations in African partner countries: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia.

Ghana’s dish at Kuntunse, about an hour’s drive outside of its capital Accra, is Africa’s first radio telescope outside of South Africa. Although its conversion was funded by South Africa’s African Renaissance and International Co-operation Fund to the tune of about R122 million (US$9,24m), the telescope will ultimately be Ghana’s to operate and maintain, Anita Loots, associate director of special projects for SKA South Africa, said at a pre-launch briefing. This telescope will not be part of the SKA: its observations will be led by local scientists, and it will be a tool to train students, she said.

The 32-metre telescope at the observatory, converted from a redundant telecommunications dish, will also form part of a network of telescopes throughout Africa. The goal is to develop a collection of telescopes, known as the African VLBI Network, and South Africa is currently negotiating with Kenya, Madagascar, and Zambia to convert old telecommunications dishes in those countries into telescopes.

For many years, Hartebeeshoek Radio Astronomy Observatory was the only African telescope linked to Europe’s network of radio telescopes. Ghana’s telescope will be able to fill in the gap in the global network. “Because of our position [in Ghana], we can see the northern and southern hemispheres,” said Dr Bernard Duah Asabere, manager of the observatory, at the briefing. “We can tell the world things they do not know.”