AFRICA’s space science may not be ready to send a manned craft to the moon, but the recent discoveries of two new giant radio galaxies using South Africa’s powerful MeerKAT telescope have served as a reminder of the continent’s growing space scientific capacity – and the potential of the field to contribute to economic growth, environmental safety and food security.
In the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, on 14 December 2020, Dr Jacinta Delhaize, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cape Town, and her associates reported that giant radio galaxies were spotted in new radio maps of the sky that were created by the International Gigahertz Tiered Extragalactic Exploration (MIGHTEE) survey.
The survey team used the MeerKAT radio telescope that consists of 64 antennas and dishes that are located in the Northern Cape province of South Africa.
Highlighting the importance of the discovery in an article in The Conversation, Delhaize, a physicist and a radio astronomer specialising in galaxy evolution, said the discovery offers fresh insights into the universe.
“Our discovery gives clues about how galaxies have changed and evolved throughout cosmic history,” she said.
The MeerKAT radio telescope is more or less a big eye, allowing African astronomers and their associates to scan the distant galactic universe.
According to Delhaize, based on what is currently known, the probability of detecting giant radio galaxies is negligible – about 0.0003%.
What that means is that, although hundreds of thousands of radio galaxies have been discovered over time, only about 800 have radio jets bigger than 700 kiloparsecs in size. A kiloparsec (kpc) is a measurement of distance equal to 1,000 parsecs or 3,260 light years.
But according to Delhaize, their new discoveries are more significant in that the two giant radio galaxies are each about two megaparsecs (mpc) across, which is about 6.5 million light years. One megaparsec is a unit of measure for distances in intergalactic space equal to one million parsecs.
In comparison, each one of those two giant radio galaxies is about 62 times the size of the Milky Way, the galaxy that contains the solar system, noted Delhaize.
According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a galaxy is a huge collection of gas, dust, and billions of stars and their solar systems, all held together by gravity.
The exciting discoveries were made because MeerKAT is currently one of the best telescopes being used by astronomers to explore the outer universe. Expectations are high that more secrets in the sky will be revealed when MeerKAT will be connected to the Square Kilometre Array, a transcontinental telescope system that will be built between 2021 and 2027 and will be hosted by South African and Australia.
According to a briefing from the Square Kilometre Array project, on completion, the network will eventually use thousands of dishes and up to a million antennas will enable astronomers to monitor and survey the entire sky much faster than any system currently being used.
In this regard, South Africa will host the core of the high- and mid-frequency dishes, ultimately extending over the African continent, while Australia will host the low-frequency antennas.
Improve economic growth
But, while Africa seems to make significant progress in space technology, space science is not limited to peering into the skies in search of galaxies and other extraterrestrial bodies. Versatile satellite technology could be used to improve the continent’s economic growth.
Amid efforts to train future African experts in space sciences, the African Union has assigned the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) in South Africa to host the Pan African Institute of Space Sciences, which is one of the five nodes of the Pan African University, a post-graduate education, training and research network supported by the continental body.
Cape Peninsula will work in collaboration with seven other South African universities: Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town, North-West University, Durban University of Technology, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the University of Fort Hare and the University of Pretoria.
The consortium will bring together expertise in satellite engineering, space physics, satellite communications, space navigation, astronomy and Earth observations.
The choice of CPUT to coordinate the PAU’s academic and research programmes in space sciences stems from the university’s successful space education projects in the past decade, having launched several CubeSats, or nanosatellites, into space.
Unlike elsewhere in Africa, South Africa’s involvement in space science can be traced back to amateur rocket launch activities in the 1950s.
Three years ago, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology launched a nanosatellite code-named ZA-Cube-2, a move that, in 2019, attracted R27 million (about US$2 million) in funding from the South African government, for the university to build three more nanosatellites for ocean monitoring and environmental fire detection.
“We will be working with Cape Peninsula to develop their next generation of nanosatellites,” said Dr Phil Mjwara, the director general of South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology.
Early warning systems
Whereas South African universities are highly developed in teaching and undertaking research in a wide range of space-related sciences in comparison to counterparts elsewhere in the continent, space science programmes have started emerging in other African universities, mostly at club level.
In Kenya, eight universities, have space science programmes, mostly in geospatial, atmospheric and Earth observation sciences. Similarly, in Nigeria, six public universities have developed space science courses related to Earth observation sciences and technologies.
Outside South Africa, most of the space science in Africa is geared towards Earth observations to collect early warning data on natural and human-made disasters that would impact on development.
Towards this goal, African space researchers have great interest in remote sensing satellites for the monitoring of climate change, destruction of the environment through forest fires, illegal logging and mining, wildlife management, the spread of pollution and other environmental damage.
According to Professor Sarah Anyang Agbor, the commissioner for human resources, science and technology at the African Union Commission, there is an urgent need to demystify space sciences by popularising it through teaching and research at the universities.
“Space science-based solutions are necessary for the effective management of resources,” Agbor pointed out.
Africa Space Week
But, beyond the long-range sustainable development agenda, the African Union is viewing immediate economic benefits that could be accrued from a rejuvenated African space industry.
For instance, during the first Africa Space Week that will be organised by the African Union Commission in Nairobi, from 20-26 March, space industry stakeholders, decision-makers and solutions and services providers as well as end-users will come together to map out strategies for growing the niche industry.
One of the objectives of the Nairobi forum will be to build a community of space actors that will continuously engage and raise awareness on the importance of the space science industry in the continent.
The event will also provide a platform for strengthening intra-Africa and international collaborations on space activities, as well as identifying capacity development opportunities to nurture nascent competencies of African space managers, experts, researchers and professionals.
Currently, Africa’s space industry is now estimated to be generating more than US$7 billion annually and this is expected to exceed US$10 billion by 2024.
According to Temidayo Oniosun, the founder of Space in Africa, Africa’s space industry is currently undergoing a renaissance.
“In Mali, satellites are helping nomadic herdsmen find water for their cattle; in Angola and Rwanda, satellites are used to connect rural classrooms to the internet, while the industry is entertaining millions with profitable TV programmes across Africa,” said Oniosun.
Estimates indicate more than 8,500 people are currently employed in the African space industry and the industry’s growth is being driven by private economies and international partnerships.
For instance, in December last year, the European Union announced a grant of €82.5 million, an equivalent of US$100 million, for the support of various digital and space technology projects in Africa.
According to Jutta Urpilainen, the European commissioner for international partnerships, the funds will be used to strengthen satellite technology in the monitoring of food security, governance of natural resources and modernisation of air navigation systems.
As the organisers of Africa Space Week pointed out, African decision-makers have realised the potential use of space science and the pressing need for capacity-building in the sector.
One way of hastening the progress is for the African space science community to build on the success stories, such as the new discovery of the two giant radio galaxies, using the South African MeerKAT.