Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor has launched the International Astronomical Union Global Office of Astronomy for Development at the headquarters of the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town.
The Global Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) is a partnership between the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) to coordinate a wide range of worldwide activities designed to use astronomy as a tool for education and development, according to the IAU.
The IAU is an international astronomical organisation of about 10 000 professional astronomers from 90 countries. Its mission is to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy in all its aspects through international cooperation.
The Global Office of Astronomy for Development is part of the IAU’s “Astronomy for the Developing World” project. In a partnership between the IAU and the South African government, the OAD began its work on 1st March 2011.
“We are here to celebrate the launch of a development office that will spread astronomy throughout the length and breadth of Africa. It’s the best place for the office to be. We have some 60 astronomers working here in South Africa (25 here at the SAAO) and they are a half of Africa’s 120 astronomers,” Pandor said at the launch on Saturday. “But more than numbers, we also have the political will.”
Pandor noted that South Africa has invested heavily in astronomy and some of these investments include the SALT (Southern African Large Telescope), MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope) and the bid to host the SKA (Square Kilometre Array).
“We chose to invest heavily in science and astronomy, because of its role in development, not only within South Africa, but all across Africa. Big astronomy projects such as SALT, MeerKAT and SKA entail major capacity development programmes in order to train the next generation of engineers and astronomers from all over Africa,” Pandor said.
“In South Africa, people in the astronomy field, from those working on the ground to the highest levels of government, share the vision that astronomy will play a significant role in the development of society,” Pandor concluded.
The President of the IAU, Prof Robert Williams, who also spoke at the launch, said: “Astronomy has incredible potential to impact on the developmental aspirations of Africa and the rest of the world. It is appropriate that this global coordinating office be situated in Sub-Saharan Africa as this is a focus region for the IAU’s strategic plan.”
The launch follows the second IAU regional meeting for the Middle East and Africa (MEARIMII). Many of the astronomers and astronomy students present at the meeting were in attendance at the launch.
Pheneas Nkundabakura, a young astronomer from Rwanda, said: “This is a very important occasion for all of Africa, as it represents a project where the continent will take on a leadership role in coordinating a global development activity. South Africa has demonstrated its capacity to host this office on behalf of Africa, through the training of astronomers like myself and in supporting astronomy development across the continent.”
Kevin Govender, the first Director of the OAD, expanded on this: “Although Africa will remain a region of strong focus, which is in accordance with the IAU strategic plan, the OAD actually has a global role to play, and lessons from developments in Africa and other parts of the world will be used to impact on every part of the world. I look forward to interacting with the broader astronomy community, both amateur and professional, to see how we can together realise the incredible potential of astronomy for development.”
The OAD will mobilise talented professional and amateur astronomers, engineers and teachers around the world in the service of developing countries. The wide range of activities that will be coordinated by the OAD include the education of young disadvantaged children, science education at all levels, the training of school teachers and building up research capacity in university departments throughout the developing world.