x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

South Africa's economic cluster of observatories

The Life: South Africa's observatory and astronomy projects expect to boost investment.

Francois Van Wyk has worked for decades at the South African Astronomical Observatory in the Karoo desert of South Africa. Sananda Sanhoo / The National
Francois Van Wyk has worked for decades at the South African Astronomical Observatory in the Karoo desert of South Africa. Sananda Sanhoo / The National

Francois Van Wyk has watched the stars for 30 years from an observatory high in the Karoo desert close to the northern borders of South Africa.

But he is never alone.

At night, the 51-year-old mans one of the telescopes at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO). As the sound of rock and heavy metal wafts in at the dead of the night, he remains rooted to the ground.

Mr Van Wyk is engaged in the sort of expensive scientific research, that could open new career options for a country's citizens and attract investments. That lesson is especially timely given that the UAE plans to launch its own space research satellite this year.

In South Africa, more than 500 million rands (Dh200.4m) was allocated to astronomy projects in the past financial year, up from 182m rands in 2008.

Of the 19 telescopes in the SAAO complex, nine are owned by SAAO while the rest are managed and operated by universities and institutes from around the world. Most of them look for supernovas and planets outside the solar system. SAAO's institutional partners include the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Consortium of UK Universities and Institutions, and India's Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics. In exchange, SAAO does not receive money, but gets observing time such as access to the telescopes.

The Southern African Large Telescope (Salt), which started operating in 2005, is the pride of the SAAO site.

It has the ability to see "almost to the edge of the universe, which by the way is expanding," says Martin Wilkinson, a systems engineer, during a media tour of the complex.

Salt, which has a separate budget to SAAO, is the world's third-largest optical telescope and the largest in the southern hemisphere.

The US$36 million (Dh132m) Salt was wholly constructed by South African contractors.

And it has helped the site gain further recognition "as an undiscovered hub for excellent astronomical observations", according to Phethiwe Matutu, the chief director of human capital and science platforms at South Africa's Department of Science and Technology.

"This has led to a marked increase in the investments from international institutions to the construction of new smaller telescopes and support for existing ones on the site, like Salt," he says.

South Africa holds 32.5 per cent of Salt, the rest being owned by international partner institutions. Currently, the country has 120 astronomers.

Last October South Africa successfully bid to co-host the world's largest scientific instrument - the $1.9 billion Square Kilometre Array (Ska) - along with Australia. The race was a heated one, and South Africa persisted even as the 2008 financial downturn set in.

Ska will comprise thousands of antennas over 3,000 kilometres, creating a radio telescope at least 50 times more powerful than a typical one. It is expected to be complete around 2024, and would be able to image the universe from the time stars and galaxies start to form, according to the journal Nature.

Work required on such an advanced telescope would generate many technology spin-offs for generic and commercial applications, Mr Matutu expects. And it would also ensure that skills are transferred to South Africans.

"South Africa's decision to host the Ska was based on the potential benefits that the Ska would bring to the country and Africa as a whole. The main ones being the advancement of scientific research capacity and large amounts of foreign investment injected into our country through Ska, which could be used to combat socio-economic issues like job creation in South Africa and the rest of the continent," he says.

Few students from the Middle East come to SAAO, and those who do opt for subjects such as computer programming. But governments here are going ahead with space projects. Next month, officials from 20 regional national space programmes and research centres will gather in Abu Dhabi to discuss commercial space applications in Earth observation as part of the Global Space and Satellite Forum.

The Emirates Institute for Advanced Science and Technology expects to launch a $50m DubaiSat-2 Earth observation satellite this year.

Back at the SAAO site, Mr Van Wyk returns to his weekly night job gathering information on the life of a star.

Apart from the immensity of time and space he keeps an eye on, Mr Van Wyk looks forward to receiving visitors. "There's so much to talk about and the universe is a rich and enormous place," he says.