The Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, has hailed the launch of the Mahikeng Astronomy Telescope (MAT) at North-West University (NWU) as a hugely significant event for South Africa.


The MAT is a 16-inch Meade LX200-ACF telescope housed at the Mahikeng Astronomical Observatory. It will be used for bright star research 60% of the time, allowing astronomers at NWU's Mahikeng campus to study the interiors of stars and their evolution. It will also be used for outreach purposes in communities across the country, as it can be operated remotely.


Headed by Prof. Thebe Medupe, the current Chair of the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme and one of South Africa's first black astronomers, the MAT is co-funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST).


Speaking at the official launch of the MAT on 7 September, Minister Kubayi-Ngubane thanked Prof. Medupe for championing the initiative to its successful conclusion. "I am pleased that the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme, chaired by Prof. Medupe, has made significant progress towards the achievement of its goals, especially growing the number of black students and graduates who are participating in this field," said the Minister.


"I must say we share the same passion, not only in making sure that children from black communities have access to information about fields that were not exposed to black communities, but also in enabling them to experience activities within astronomy."


The Minister said the launch put NWU on a par with institutions such as the University of the Western Cape and the University of Cape Town. The MAT is part of an effort to develop astronomy and related sciences at historically disadvantaged universities, while showcasing the country's growing capabilities in the field.


The MAT launch follows hard on the heels of major recent developments in South African astronomy, including the launches of the 64-dish MeerKAT radio telescope, the MeerLICHT telescope, and the Hydrogen Intensity and Real Time Analysis eXperiment (HIRAX) telescope.


Minister Kubayi-Ngubane said the vision of the DST was to make South Africa a hub for astronomy sciences and facilities, as articulated in the National Strategy for Multi-wavelength Astronomy.


"The strategy has enabled South Africa to take maximum advantage of its historical strengths in astronomy, its clear southern skies in the Karoo, its engineering and scientific base, and its growing ranking in astronomy globally."


The Minister added that it was for these reasons that South Africa had recently won the bid to host the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2024.  It will be the first time that this global meeting of professional astronomers is held in Africa, in what will be the 105th year of the IAU's existence.


"The opportunity for many African astronomers to take part in one of the world's biggest astronomy meetings will contribute to an enduring legacy of astronomy on the continent," she said.


Prof. Thebe said the Mahikeng Astronomy Telescope would help NWU to attract more black students to science and astronomy, and the impact of this would be seen in the future as more black scientists emerged.


"The telescope will also be used to train postgraduate students in observational and data analysis techniques. As a result, the telescope will contribute towards building a more inclusive astronomy community, since most of the students being trained are black South Africans," said Prof. Thebe.


The Mahikeng Astronomy Observatory also houses other smaller telescopes, including an 8-inch Celestron telescope and smaller refractors. All of these will be made available for viewing by the public during regular open nights.


Issued by the Department of Science and Technology and North-West University.


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