Launch of Kutunse radio telescope significant move for science

by Khodani MasindiAugust 23, 2017

The launch of the Ghana Radio Astronomy Observatory is crucial not only to Ghana but to the international science community.

On Thursday, South African Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor will join Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo to officially launch the radio telescope, which was repurposed from a communications antenna over the past few years.

In an interview with SAnews in Accra shortly after a technical briefing ahead of Thursday’s launch, Anita Loots, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa Head: Office of Africa Planning, said this was a very important week for the international science community as far as astronomy research was concerned.

Once the radio telescope in Kutunse gets commissioned, it is expected that there will be an influx of astronomers who will converge to the facility to do research.

“This week in Ghana is extremely significant for Africa and Africa’s participation in the Square Kilometre Array project because we are launching the Ghana Radio Astronomy Observatory and that means the Observatory in Ghana was the first one outside of South Africa, as one of the partner countries, that has demonstrated that they could realise a telescope and demonstrate to the international science community that the telescope can basically work in all three scientific modes that it was designed to operate,” Loots said.

This comes not long after the radio telescope, the first of its kind on the continent outside of South Africa, reached a significant milestone where “first light” was observed.

“First light” is a process whereby the functionality of a radio telescope is tested for the first time, and the very first images are received. This is done by observing a well-known source and calibrators, and comparing the data received by the new instrument with that already existing from others.

“It is significant because it is an observation that we have done at the same time as Europeans… [We] have done the observation, looked at the same source and recorded the same data and we have proven that we have got the same data and information as the rest of the European telescopes. That is called the VLBI [Very Long Baseline Interferometry] observation. It is done with all telescopes looking at the same source and the baseline between the telescopes is what is important,” Loots said.

Dr Bernard Duah Asabere, the Manager of the Ghana Radio Astronomy Observatory and a Senior Operations Astronomer, said this was, on a personal level, a very exciting moment for him.

“From a national point of view, initially I was the first employee under the Ghana Space Science and Technology Institute… At first, people thought this was not going to be possible, looking at where we were and the human capacity that we had. People thought it wasn’t going to be possible.

“So I am so excited that the effort we put in, especially South Africa and other collaborators have yielded dividends and the results that we have been looking for. For me, that is exciting,” he said. Throughout the repurposing of the radio telescope, the project opened up opportunities for development in the area.

Asabere said Kutunse residents and surrounding communities have benefitted from the project, from children in nearby schools receiving science, astronomy, mathematics and computing lessons, to locals getting employed as welders, painters and mechanical engineers.

He said this has also contributed to tourism in the area.

Ghana is the first partner country of the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) Network (AVN) to complete the conversion of a communications antenna into a functioning radio telescope.

The 32-metre converted telecommunications antenna in Kutunse will be integrated into the AVN in preparation for the second phase of the construction of the SKA across the African continent.

Nasir Ahmad Yartey, the Head of Public Relations of Ghana’s Ministry of Environment, Science Technology and Innovation, said South Africa is leading the charge in Africa being part of building the world’s biggest telescope. He said Ghana was chosen as one of the member countries because of its unique position.

“The uniqueness of this radio astronomy that we have in Kutunse is the fact that it is the first on the African continent outside South Africa. What we have in Kutunse will be able to contribute a great deal and knowledge of science.

“Very soon, a lot of scientists from all over the world will be travelling to study the universe from Ghana. So it is a unique opportunity for Ghana as far as our contribution to space science is concerned,” Yartey said.

Source: http://www.sanews.gov.za/south-africa/launch-kutunse-radio-telescope-significant-move-science

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Khodani Masindi