Bringing together a new generation of African radio astronomers

Leeds is equipping future African radio astronomers with the space science expertise to secure senior jobs in multi-country research programmes, and to inspire young scientists in their countries.

The students are carrying out Masters and PhD qualifications in the UK as part of the Leeds-led Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) project, which is supported by the Newton Fund and Global Challenges Research Fund. Goonhilly Earth Station is one of the project’s industrial partners.  

The students have learnt how to analyse data and use high-tech telescopes which are operating in eight sub-Saharan countries: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia. When they return to their home countries, they will be able to pass on their skills to colleagues and will also be able to set up their own businesses using the enterprise skills they have gained.

DARA is led by Professor Melvin Hoare in the School of Physics and Astronomy, and its wider goal is to equip these countries to work together to build the world’s largest multi-radio telescope: the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

DARA Kenya cohort

The DARA students are gaining the space science expertise and skills to secure senior jobs in multi-country research programmes that are based on their continent.

Its aim is to steer economic development more widely, as the population will be able to build and expand prospects of wealth and opportunity. This internal resource should mean in the future the individual countries will rely less on external partners for aid.

Kingsley Ahenkora-Duodu, Evans Owusu, and Miora Andriantsaralaza are among the DARA scholars who met at Goonhilly in Cornwall, UK, earlier this month. At the site, scientists have upcycled a proportion of the old telecoms dishes into radio telescopes, and the students learnt how they operated and the type of data they can create.

Goonhilly

Telecoms dishes that are being refurbished at Goonhilly include a radio astronomy dish, a satellite communications dish, and the world’s first private Deep Space Network dish.

At the event, Goonhilly CEO Ian Jones talked to the students about space communications and their synergies with radio astronomy. The students each presented their work to build links with peers both during their studies in the UK and for when they return to Africa. They also toured three large dishes that are being refurbished at Goonhilly, including the world's first private Deep Space Network dish.

Building research communities in developing countries

Kingsley, from Ghana, was among one of the first groups of students to be selected for DARA and presented his research into the effects of high-mass stars on stellar environments during the visit to Goonhilly. He described how DARA has helped him to realise his ambitions and gain valuable knowledge that will allow him to contribute to the economic and social development of Ghana:

“I trained as a telescope operator and am currently pursuing my PhD at the University of Leeds on the DARA advanced training programme.”

“I will be going home not only with the knowledge gained in astronomy but also with a strong family of people from the African network and beyond. Moreover, I can transfer the skills I have learned to different purposes in academia, research, and industry in developing countries like Ghana.”

I can transfer the skills I have learned to different purposes in academia, research, and industry in developing countries like Ghana.

DARA research students

At Goonhilly the students built links with peers for both during their studies in the UK and further work when they return to Africa.

He added: “As a little boy from Juansa in the Ashanti region of Ghana, I had ambitions to study the universe. I had no hope in actualising that dream after high school since there wasn’t a degree for astronomers in Ghana.”

“Now, thanks to DARA I am a trained Radio Telescope Operator. I have successfully undergone the basic training programme in radio astronomy, and I am currently a PhD student at Leeds, one of the world-class universities.”

“When I return to Ghana, I will be in the right position to have an impact on individuals in the field.”

Tackling today’s global challenges

Evans, also from Ghana, is one of the “privileged young scholars” selected to participate in DARA’s advanced training programme. He said:

“I have acquired cutting-edge scientific, entrepreneurial and socioeconomic skills needed in addressing today’s global challenges. Further to this, a country whose citizens are skilled in STEM-related areas is a prosperous country. Hence, my country stands to benefit from the new pool of scientific gems needed to solve the many issues we face as a nation.”

“DARA has established an excellent foundation for the development of radio astronomy in Africa and I am a living testimony.”

DARA researchers

Students on the DARA training programme learnt about space science communications and their synergies with radio astronomy.

Like Kingsley, Evans also presented his research at Goonhilly.

He said “I am investigating how radio jets evolve from massive young stellar objects. My research looks for patterns and correlations that will offer clues into how these jets vary with mass and age.”

DARA is of great importance to me because it has offered the opportunity to acquire further studies outside my country, giving me international exposure and cross-cultural knowledge.

“Personally, DARA is of great importance to me because it has offered the opportunity to acquire further studies outside my country, giving me international exposure and cross-cultural knowledge.”

Sharing expertise through international research

Miora, from Madagascar, is carrying out her MPhil at the University of Manchester, one of DARA’s UK partner universities. She said:

“After my training in the UK, I am planning to be actively involved in research, as well as sharing the knowledge I have acquired.”

“There is a need for qualified astronomers in Madagascar especially now that the astrophysics and astronomy school has opened within the country's main university and with the advent of the SKA project in Africa.”

“The knowledge obtained from the DARA programme will be of considerable importance, whether for gaining transferable skills or in participating in radio astronomy projects taking place.”

The knowledge obtained from the DARA programme will be of considerable importance, whether for gaining transferable skills or in participating in radio astronomy projects taking place.

DARA research students

The students learnt how telecoms dishes that have been turned into radio telescopes are operated and the type of data they can create.

Further information

The Newton Fund and Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) tackle critical problems in developing countries and are part of the Government’s official UK Aid programme.

Leeds academics are among the most successful in the UK at securing funding from the two programmes, because of their effective interdisciplinary and long-term collaborative approach to delivering in-country improvement based on the needs expressed by governments and civil society organisations.

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