3 April 2014

Africa: Why the EU and Africa Must Cooperate On Astronomy Research

When the heads of states of the European Union and Africa meet in Brussels this week (2-3 April) to work out their future cooperation, they will have input from a series of expert meetings held in the run-up to the main event.

One piece of advice, courtesy of the African European Radio Astronomy Platform (AERAP), is that collaboration on radio astronomy research can bring societal benefits, both directly and through building capacity for other types of research and data handling.

This advice was fleshed out by speakers from science, industry and the EU at an industry and Africa-EU science capacity building round-table seminar organised by AERAP in Brussels yesterday.

Collaboration with Africa is essential from a scientific point of view to obtain a complete picture of the sky, said Ricardo Genova of the Astrophysics Institute of the Canary Islands, Spain. But apart from pushing back the frontiers of science, he explained that planned cross-continent initiatives promise training for South Africa's scientists and engineers.

Ian Jones, of the Goonhilly Earth Station in the United Kingdom, added that the skills needed for radio astronomy research are transferable to a whole range of fields, from processing big data to telemedicine and tele-education projects inspired by the work of AERAP and SKA (Square Kilometre Array), a new radio astronomy project partly based in South Africa.

Better connectivity

The communication networks required to transfer the huge amounts of data that will be generated between observatories in the northern and southern hemispheres offer a key opportunity for developments in several sectors.

"The data needs to be transported out of Africa somehow," said Gerlinde Bedoe, from Coriant, a telecommunications company based in Germany, pointing to high-resolution images collected by radio astronomy dishes in Africa that need to be sent to scientists around the world for analysis.

The recently developed underwater internet cables that relay research information from South Africa to Europe could further improve as demand for bigger data and better connectivity is driven by radio astronomy.

Eventually, this internet infrastructure could be used to provide broadband to the general public, ensuring more peaceful and prosperous societies, the meeting heard.

"Communication is a key driver of peace," said Jones. "It's essential to be able to talk to each other."

Sharing renewable energy

Domingos Barbosa of the Institute of Telecommunications in Portugal explained that green energy developments that allow radio astronomy infrastructure to lower its carbon footprint could also help local communities in Africa.

"If you're able to power data centres, you're able to power small villages," he said.

This will require local business spin-offs, offering an opportunity to enhance common prosperity, he concluded.

Similarly, Jones said that radio astronomy is "an important enabler of education and skills development".

But alongside technology development, it is important to develop people's understanding and use of technology for it to lead to economic prosperity, he added.

Frontier science driving development

As astronomer George Miley of Leiden University in the Netherlands, explained, astronomy research has historically driven technological innovation through everyday applications (such as Wi-Fi) and continues to do so.

"To go to the deepest, farthest objects [in the universe] you need cutting edge technology," he said. A whole range of other scientific disciplines and activities, such as measurement of tides, weather and earthquakes, can then "piggyback" on those developments and new infrastructure.

He concluded: "There's a real demand for using astronomy for development".

The seminar organisers paid for the travel to the event.

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