Seven Ghanaians arrived in South Africa earlier this month to begin training on the independent operation and maintenance of radio telescopes in Africa.
Using a miniature version of a radio telecsope, they will learn how to design, build, operate and maintain an African telescope network that will support the scientific and technical activities of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
According to Joyce Koranteng-Acquah, a research scientist at the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission, the SKA is set to improve the lives of the average Ghanaian through the provision of jobs, infrastructure and tourism. Koranteng-Acquah has just arrived in South Africa for SKA-related training, which she hopes will equip her with the skills she needs eventually to help coordinate the Ghana Radio Astronomy Project.
Koranteng-Acquah, along with Emmanuel Mornoh, Severin Azakpo, Theophilus Ansahnarh, Felix Madjitey, Emmanuel Adzri and Joseph Nsor, make up the first technical team from Africa to receive training as part of the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN) programme.
The aim of the programme is to create a network of radio telescopes among SKA South Africa's African partner countries: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.
New generation of African scientists, engineers
"The training programme marks the start of a programme to strengthen African technical capability," Deputy Science and Technology Minister Michael Masutha said on Friday. "Involving the African partner countries in the AVN training programme is a means of ensuring that Africa is capacitated and ready for hosting the SKA."
The Deputy Minister was speaking ahead of the programme's launch at the MeerKAT headquarters in Pinelands, Cape Town.
Masutha said the training project would establish strong collaborative Africa-Europe networks in science and engineering and would deliver practical training and hands-on experiences that would enthuse a new generation of scientists and engineers on the continent.
Bringing home the basics
Initially, the Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) project will focus on the conversion of large redundant or unused telecommunication antennas into the AVN, and on training local teams to operate the new observatories.
The seven Ghanaians began training on 14 October, and in their first two months will focus on the basics of radio telescope systems at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) north of Johannesburg and at the SKA office in Cape Town. After this, another four months will be dedicated to developing their own telescope systems.
"Having [access to] the world's largest telescope to study the universe and the life of stars, and being part of this team of scientists and engineers is great," said Adzri, an assistant research scientist at the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission.
Anita Loots, associate director at SKA South Africa, said that up to 70 individuals from the eight SKA partner countries could be trained in the same way over the next few years.
"The training programme itself is a world first," added Loots. "It is a combination of engineering and scientific skills development across disciplines, which will equip teams with a thorough understanding of their own instruments."
Part of the programme uses animations to explain important engineering concepts, and the trainees will be able to use these back in Ghana to train their colleagues.
Another unique aspect of the training is what Loots calls the "baby telescope". This training-wheel equivalent is basically a satellite television dish equipped with all the key features of a typical, but much larger, AVN radio telescope. It is officially known as the AVN Scaled Training Telescope.
The trainees will build the entire system, starting with only the components, and will ultimately use it to monitor radio emissions from our own star, the sun. This exercise will help them to familiarise themselves with the principles of radio telescope design and operation.
"These are the first steps towards preparing our African partners to manage SKA telescope stations," Loots said. "We are working together to maximise the benefits of participating in SKA activities for Africa as a whole, as well as the sustainability of radio astronomy in the region."
African human capital development
Further steps on the way to human capital development for the AVN include formal and informal training events, such as the so-called Joint Exchange Development Initiative (JEDI) workshops. In these relaxed but high-intensity environments, university students and staff are encouraged to problem-solve together by sharing knowledge and ideas.
A group of 14 astrophysics graduates from the University of Nairobi, Kenya, along with senior university staff, will be doing a five-day JEDI under the leadership of the SKA South Africa and AVN team. It is expected that JEDIs will be extensively conducted across the continent during 2014.
These and other training-focussed operations form part of what can be termed a holistic approach to human capital development for African radio astronomy.