JOHANNESBURG — A skyward glance on an African night is a look into the center of the Milky Way. The continent is well positioned on earth for a great look at our galaxy.
Africa, as a continent, is not known for its space exploration. It was not a part of the space race of the 1960s.
But these days, astronomy and space programs here have become key parts in teaching us about what is happening beyond our atmosphere.
Kevin Govender, the Director of the Global Office of Astronomy for the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town, said Africa is well suited to look into outer space.
“In terms of the continent, the interesting thing about Africa is if you look at the famous night time satellite view of the earth you find these bright lights in the U.S. and Europe and you find across Africa it is a very dark continent. That darkness is also something that gives people better access to the night sky. The African continent still offers places that people can go to, to appreciate the night sky in a way our ancestors did; in a way to appreciate our place in the universe,” said Govender.
A decade from now, South Africa – along with Australia – will be providing the fastest, clearest and largest view of space that humans have ever had through the Square Kilometer Array – a radio telescope with a collecting area of one square kilometer. It will be able to survey the skies 10,000 times faster than any instrument before.
Countries like Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Mauritius all have astronomy projects, and some are launching satellites into space. Italy has a launch pad in Kenya and the Ukraine is in discussions to do the same there.
Algeria’s space program has helped the country’s agriculture industry cope with farming in the environs of the world’s hottest desert.
Govender said this is just the beginning. “But I think the message that is becoming very clear is that there are visionary people on the continent who really want to stimulate development within their countries, and they see astronomy as a way of doing that.”
Govender listed dozens of major projects across the continent, including Senegal, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Namibia, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Mozambique and Tanzania.
But not everyone is excited. Some Africans argue spending large sums on space exploration is a travesty on a continent that suffers from astounding poverty.
Govender said the science of space and related programs are exactly what can help lift Africa out of problems of chronic malnutrition and disease by providing new opportunities to develop economic and educational tools.
“If we have a society that can make informed decisions, then we can empower,” he said.
Govender pointed to the Internet, one of the biggest technological changes in the last several decades, which was developed through what he terms ‘blue sky sciences’ – involving space research. Many were skeptical it could benefit Africa with its limited infrastructure. But now Africans are among those benefiting most from Internet and mobile phone technologies.
With South Africa’s Square Kilometer Array radio telescope, which currently is in development, Govender said the program will spur huge advancements in data processing capabilities.
“There are no existing systems that can handle that quantity of data. Yet we are in a global economy, in a world that basically lives off data. The data that we can use for earth information systems, for agriculture, information about education… this investment in astronomy is going to push technology to be able to handle that information,” said Govender.
Along with development, exploration and education, he sees another global benefit.
“Engaging with the night sky is a very deep experience, and very important philosophically. What does the moon see? When we think about where we are in the universe, and what the earth looks like. From that view, there’s no country borders, there’s no skin color, there’s no language differences. It’s basically a little blue planet that has life on it. It gives us a message of tolerance and peace,” he said.
That is a message Govender hopes to extend throughout Africa.