SA-Ghana collaboration expands radio astronomy skills in Africa

Ghana has become the first African country, apart from South Africa, to convert a redundant satellite dish into a functional radio telescope as part of the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) Network. The VLBI is a network of radio telescopes that will work together as one large instrument, and will be incorporated into the second phase of the construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an international project to build the world's largest radio telescope.


On 24 August 2017, the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, and the President of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, officially launched the telescope at the Ghana Astronomy Radio Observatory in Kuntunse. The launch coincided with the 4th Ministerial Meeting of the SKA African partner countries in Accra.  


Speaking at the event, Minister Pandor said that South Africa wanted the VLBI project to have roots not only in South Africa, but all over Africa.


Minister Pandor said that Ghana's first radio telescope was a significant milestone. "It's long-term significance lies in the contribution it will make to the SKA. The telescope will, in due course, form part of the first phase of the VLBI array, which will enable it to support even greater science than it would be able to on its own."


President Akufo-Addo said that his country was committed to increasing its investment in science, technology and innovation (STI). Ghana will increase spending on research, development and innovation from 0,25% in the interim to 2,5% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in the long-term, recognising the role that STI can play in socio-economic development.


Ghana will also establish a national science and innovation fund to support research and development in all research and innovation institutions at universities, and in the public and private sectors.


President Akufo-Addo said he hoped these measures would make the transition from research to product development and industrial production much easier and faster. He challenged all university students, particularly young women, to take science education seriously and to take advantage of the opportunities offered at the observatory.


Ghana collaborated with the SKA South Africa (SKA SA)/HartRAO (Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory) group to harness the radio astronomy potential of the redundant satellite communication antenna at Kutunse.


Since 2011, a team of scientists and engineers from SKA SA/HartRAO and the Ghana Space Science and Technology Institute has been working on the astronomy instrument upgrade to make it radio-astronomy ready.


The South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation has been funding a large part of the conversion project through the African Renaissance and International Cooperation Fund.

The 32-metre converted telecommunications antenna has already proven to be a success. The antenna undertook a combination of 'first light' science observations (the first use of a telescope after its construction), which included methanol maser detections, VLBI fringe testing and pulsar observations. Achieving these three objectives confirmed that the instrument can operate as a single dish radio telescope and also as part of the global VLBI network.


Following the initial 'first light' observations, the research teams from Ghana and South Africa, together with other international research partners, continue to do more observations and are analysing the data generated in order to improve the telescope's accuracy for future experiments.


"There are many ways of doing science, but more and more frontier science involves huge international investments of time and money. SKA is in this category. What holds it all together, is a collective steadfastness of purpose. We are proving that science knows no borders," said Minister Pandor.


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