Exploring Space from an African Perspective: the Giant Telescope "Square Kilometre Array" in South Africa

On 6 December 2022, in Cape Town, South Africa, in parallel with the opening of the World Science Forum 2022, the construction of the "Square Kilometre Array" - SKA for short - was officially announced. This will be the largest and most powerful radio telescope in the world when completed. A similar telescope will be built in Australia in the next few years. With these research instruments, which will be integrated into a worldwide network of telescopes, it will be possible in the future to observe a very large section of the universe simultaneously with high precision. The construction of the two giant telescopes is central to the international Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO) project, which involves a total of 20 countries worldwide, including nine African countries. On the occasion of the start of construction, the international science magazine "Sci-Dev.net" reported euphoric expectations: "African astronomers point to a golden age of astronomy on the continent as work begins in South Africa on the world's biggest telescope." Do you have the impression that this enthusiasm is spreading beyond the astronomical experts to the South African public?

Irina Turner: There are also many amateur astronomers in South Africa who follow the news about the SKA. However, it is certainly a challenge to communicate the general relevance of this scientific megaproject to the public. The value and importance of the huge amounts of data that will be collected in the near future cannot fully be estimated yet. As a result, it is not always easy to justify the substantial investment going into the project. It is clear, nevertheless, that a project of this magnitude will inevitably impact on many people who have not previously been interested in astronomy. In African contexts, it is also often important to emphasize the relevance of space exploration to the here and now and to point out its offshoots. During the Covid 19 pandemic, for example, SKA engineers in South Africa helped develop medical respirators that do not need to be powered by electricity.

Do you also see disadvantages of the project?

I.T.: Yes, the ongoing research in South Africa and the predecessor project MeerKAT in the semi-desert Karoo, certainly interfere with the lives of people in the vicinity. Microwave ovens or cell phones are not allowed to be used because radiation could interfere with the signals. In addition, visiting these villages is a complicated process that requires many bureaucratic permits. For many locals, therefore, the project is at first glance more of a spectre than a promise. This issue has been studied by my South African colleague Davide Chinigo, among others.

Do you believe that the construction of the giant telescope will give new impetus to astronomical and physical research on the African continent and thus drive technological development throughout the continent?

I.T.: The scientific importance of the SKA project will certainly not be limited to Africa, because it is a project that is decidedly designed for global cooperation. No single country will be able to analyze the data on its own, as the various sites will be combined into one large telescope. Thus, the knowledge gained in South Africa and at other African sites will advance astronomical research worldwide. In this way, the African continent is gaining a permanent place on the map of astroscience. This is already leading to more investment in education and economic infrastructure, but also in research itself. Since the turn of the millennium, some African countries have significantly advanced investments in space research. The associated technologies are useful on the ground, for example, for weather forecasting. In many ways, the SKA has accelerated this momentum.

When NASA's Apollo programme was launched in the 1960s, eventually leading to a series of spectacular moon landings, enthusiasm for space travel grew among many young people in Germany as well. Can you imagine that the new giant telescope project will also wing the imagination of young people in Africa and awaken their interest in space exploration?

I.T.: I cannot speak for the entire young generation in Africa, of course, but it is likely that more news about space exploration in Africa will also spark new interests. When comparing it to the U.S. context, however, it is important to keep in mind that space exploration is linked to ideas deeply rooted in imperial and colonial thinking. In essence, astronomy is driven by the questions "Where do we come from?" and "Who are we as human beings?". The interpretation of these questions in terms of national interests and policies foregrounds the idea of "conquering" other planets being rooted in the desire to occupy foreign territory and claim it as national space. I can imagine that this motivation is problematic, or at least disconcerting, for many Africans. Therefore, people in charge of the SKA project must be conscious not to reiterate this neo-colonial narrative when communicating the agenda and goals of this project to the public. The prospect of a job with SKA or related emerging projects will not by itself be sufficient to drive engagement and provide spaces of identification for the local population. This could ultimately determine the success or failure of the project.

Are there possibly specifically African perspectives on cosmological issues?

I.T.: Yes. For example, there is complex astronomical history in West Africa and in Egypt that goes back well before Galileo Galilei. In South Africa, much of this knowledge has been buried and is sometimes lost because of the colonial past and the damage done by apartheid. Ethnoastronomy has now established itself as a scientific discipline that systematically explores these bodies of knowledge. South African astrophysicist Thebe Medupe is the co-producer of a fascinating film called "Cosmic Africa," which provides a sensitive and entertaining introduction to the subject.

Already in January 2020, you had a workshop on "Square Kilometre Array" together with African scientists as part of the Bayreuth project "SKAnning Space from Africa: Seeing and Be-coming". The lectures and discussions linked astrophysical and technological aspects with social, cultural and media science issues. What were the most important results of this workshop? Did the major topic of "decolonization" also play a role?

I.T.: This workshop, initiated by my colleague Hanna Nieber, who now works in Halle, was truly transdisciplinary and brought together highly engaged scientists in inspiring discussions. We explored the points of contact of our disciplinary interests around the SKA. This has not only resulted in some very interesting publications, but we have also established an international research group called "Africa-Off-Earth-Network" – AOEN for short. For us, decolonization is not a single isolated research topic, not an agenda item to be ticked off, but rather the common ground of our various interests shaped by our respective disciplines. We work on sociological, sociolinguistic and anthropological issues, but also shed light, for example, on the political responsibility of African astronomers who work closely with SKA.

Will these topics continue to be addressed within the framework of the Cluster of Excellence "Africa Multiple"?

I.T.: I hope so. Linking technology and indigenous African knowledge should be one of the central concerns of cluster projects. The SKA project offers a unique case study for this, but of course it also needs committed and competent scientists to advance these enquiries.

You and other members of Bayreuth African Studies are members of the "Africa-Off-Earth Network" you mentioned earlier. What are the long-term goals of this collaboration? 

I.T.: SKA is the largest scientific project in the world that is currently under construction. We want to accompany this process from the perspective of African studies in the long term. In doing so, we consider disciplines such as philosophy, science and technology studies, and astrophysics. The strength of our newly established network is its transdisciplinary and international composition. The idea is that our various research perspectives and interests around the SKA, taken as a whole, will contribute to gaining clarity about the social positioning of space research and help launching new narratives about humanity's relationship to the universe from African perspectives.

For further information see:

„Square-km scope shows African astronomers bright future" (Sci-Div.net):

„Development in astronomy and space science in Africa“ (Nature):

„Karoo Futures: Astronomy in Place and Space – Introduction“ (Journal of Southern African Studies):

„Indiscipline as Method: From Telescopes to Ventilators in Times of Covid“ (Sabinet African Journals):

Homepage of the „Africa-Off-Earth- Network“:

Dr. Irina Turner

Dr. Irina TurnerAfrican Linguistics - Member of the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence - University of Bayreuth

Phone: +49 (0)921 / 55-3558
E-mail: irina.turner@uni-bayreuth.de

Christian Wißler

Christian WißlerDeputy Press & PR Manager, Research Communication, University of Bayreuth

Phone: +49 (0)921 / 55-5356
E-mail: christian.wissler@uni-bayreuth.de

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