Ghana and South Africa mark first success in African radio telescope network


A communications antenna in Ghana has been converted from being a redundant telecoms instrument into a functioning very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) radio telescope.

Ghana is the first partner country of the African VLBI network (AVN) to complete conversion of communications antenna into a functioning radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Africa said.

The 32m converted telecommunications antenna at the Ghana Intelsat Satellite Earth Station at Kutunse will be integrated into the African VLBI Network (AVN) ahead of second phase construction of the SKA across the African continent.

The combination “first light” science observations included Methanol Maser detections, VLBI fringe testing and Pulsar observations. Reaching these three objectives confirms the instrument can operate as a single dish radio telescope and also as part of global VLBI network observations, such as the European one. Following initial “first light” observations, research teams from Ghana and South Africa together with other international research partners, continue to do more observations and are analysing data generated with the aim of characterising the system and improving its accuracy for future experiments.
“The Ghanaian government embraces the prospect of radio astronomy in the country and our radio astronomy development plan forms part of the broader Ghana Science, Technology and Innovation Development Plan,” Professor Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, the Ghana Minister of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation (MESTI), said.

As an SKA Africa partner country, Ghana welcomed and collaborated with the SKA South Africa (SKA SA)/HartRAO (Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomical Observatory) group to harness the radio astronomy potential of the redundant satellite communication antenna at Kutunse. A team of scientists and engineers from SKA SA/HartRAO and the Ghana Space Science and Technology Institute (GSSTI) under MESTI, has been working on the astronomy instrument upgrade to make it radio-astronomy ready since 2011. In 2012, Ghana launched the GSSTI as the vehicle through which to grow its astro-physics programme.

South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO) funded a large part of the conversion project through the African Renaissance and International Co-operation Fund (ARF). DIRCO Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said: “The ARF is aimed at strengthening co-operation between South Africa and other African countries and to support development of skills and build institutional capacity on the continent.”

Nine African partner countries are members of the SKA AVN. They are Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia.
“A vital part of the effort towards building SKA on the African continent over the next decade is to develop the skills, regulations and institutional capacity needed in SKA partner countries to optimise African participation in the SKA,” South African Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor, said.

The AVN programme aims to transfer skills and knowledge in African partner countries to build, maintain, operate and use radio telescopes. Pandor sees it bringing new science opportunities to Africa on a relatively short time scale and developing radio astronomy science communities in SKA partner countries.

The Leverhulme-Royal Society Trust and Newton Fund in the United Kingdom are co-funding human capital development programmes in the SKA AVN partner countries. A seven-member Ghanaian team has undergone training in South Africa on all aspects of the project including telescope operation. Several PhD students and an MSc student from Ghana have received SKA SA bursaries to pursue further education in various fields of astronomy and engineering while the Royal Society has awarded funding in collaboration with Leeds University to train two PhDs and 60 aspiring scientists in astrophysics. Based on this programmes success, a joint UK-South Africa Newton Fund intervention, the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA), has been initiated in other partner countries to grow high technology skills that could lead to broader economic development in Africa. This Newton Fund programme is providing a pool of talented young people inspired by astronomy ultimately play a leading role in the emergence of new economies.

A Ministerial Forum comprising Ministers from the nine SKA AVN partner countries convenes annually to provide strategic and political leadership on co-operation with the SKA and AVN projects and on other relevant radio astronomy programmes and initiatives. The next SKA AVN Ministerial Forum will be held in Accra, Ghana in August when the Kutunse radio telescope will officially be launched.