Development of Astronomical Observing Facilities conference puts forward the case for UK supported Astronomical Observatory in Kenya

Kenya Optical Telescope Initiative
The participants at the Development of Astronomical Bbserving Faciliities Conference in Kenya.

Astronomy stakeholders from around the world met in Nairobi last week at a conference to discuss the possibility of setting up an Astronomical Observatory and related facilities for education and outreach in Kenya. Such a telescope in Kenya would be the only research-class observatory in equatorial Africa, providing a focus of interest for the East African region and indeed the entire continent.

The conference included discussions highlighting the opportunities that Kenya offers for high quality locations for an astronomical observatory and associated astronomical research. The meeting also explored benefits an observatory could bring to capacity building in science, engineering and technology at all levels from primary schools to universities and industry. Emphasis is placed on the fact that Kenya occupies a unique geographical area for astronomy on the equator but as yet it has no existing observatory. 

Kenya Optical Telescope Initiative
Discussions at the conference included ways to highlight the opportunities that Kenya offers for high quality locations for an astronomical observatory and associated astronomical research.

This conference was the last in a series of meetings following previous meetings that took place in Edinburgh and Cape Town as part of a project funded by the UK Research and Innovation through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) led by Dr Martyn Wells from the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) which is part of the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). 

A group from the Technical University of Kenya and Kenyatta University, the Travelling Telescope, the UKATC and the South African Astronomical Observatory have, over the course of these meetings developed the case for an observatory in Kenya and associated outreach and capacity building activities. They have also prepared and run a series of workshops for university staff and students during this Nairobi meeting looking at the science case for an observatory, astronomy outreach activities, the engineering skills and capabilities needed and available in Kenya. Two ‘Star Parties’ are taking place where participants can view the sky facilitated by the Travelling Telescope team. 

Sonia Kemunto would like to travel to Mars one day! She is a class 8 pupil of Josu Academy and was happy to boost her knowledge on the solar system.

Before and after the activities in Nairobi small groups are visiting potential sites to make initial meteorological measurements as to their quality for astronomy. Weather stations will be installed at these locations to measure the long term properties of the sites.

Kenya Optical Telescope Initiative
The conference gave participants the chance to check out different telescopes.

The speakers included: Kenya’s astronomer Susan Murabana, CEO of The Travelling Telescope; Former PS in the Ministry of Information and Communication Dr. Bitange Ndemo; Prof. Paul Baki. Head of Physics and Space Science at the Technical University of Kenya; and Dr David Buckley, senior astronomer from the South African Astronomical Observatory.

All the other members of the team from abroad and in Kenya were available to discuss all aspects of this project.

Kenya as a site for an astronomical observatory

Professor Baki said “Kenya currently suffers a serious brain drain among graduates in science and technology. This is largely due to lack of facilities within the country for graduates with scientific talent to develop their skills for the benefit of the local economy. The few provinces in which scientific research of an international standard takes place are predictable for a developing country: medicine, veterinary science and agriculture. There are virtually no avenues for research into mathematics, physics or astronomy.” 

Benedict Mwenda is a class 8 student of Josh Academy. He hopes to explore and discover new interesting things in the space.

Speaking about the collaboration Dr Wells from UKATC said “The UK team are very happy indeed on the success of the work to date on preparing a case for a definitive Equatorial research observatory in Kenya. Working with the Kenyan team has led to a series of ever more productive meetings over the last year. I hope that the legacy of this work will lead to future generations of African astronomers having an opportunity to benefit from access to a Kenyan observatory and at astronomy sites around the World”.

Kenya Optical Telescope Initiative
Emphasis has been placed on the fact that Kenya occupies a unique geographical area for astronomy on the equator but as yet it has no existing observatory.

The irony of this is all the greater for the fact that Kenya hosts some of the best sites for astronomical research on the African continent. That this is not recognised either in political or academic circles is testament to the parlous state of scientific endeavour in the country. Kenya represents a world-class location for an astronomical observatory for the following reasons: 

  • In the NW of the Kenya there is an area with (for a location on the equator) unusally low cloud coverage. This dry area on the equator give access to >85% of the sky in both northern and southern celestial hemispheres.
  • There are several mountain top sites within easy reach of existing roads at an altitude of 2,000 metres or more. High altitude on these peaks offers the prospect of good observing conditions  
  • Whilst being fairly accessible, such sites are nonetheless far from urban or industrial development. There is thus very little pollution of the sky either by light or effluent.
  • At the best sites, the local microclimate allows clear skies for most of the year

According to Professor Baki “The human resource challenge is being addressed through through the Square Kilometre Array bursary programme (so far 16 Kenyans sponsored), where they study in South African universities and use South African based infrastructure , the Developmnt in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) programme spearhead by the University of Leeds, whereby they study in UK universities and use based infrastructure, and lastly training in local universities.  Thus, there is currently no Astronomical Observatory, both Radio and Optical Astronomical Observatory to support local training, which has remained largely theoretical.”

Justification for an Observatory

The establishment of an Optical Astronomical Observatory , would enable Kenya  leverage this project to accomplish the following:

  1. Technology development– in the area of optical engineering and realted technologies
  2. Capacity Building– in terms of research, training and outreach
  3. Technology transfer– by working with international partners as possible stakeholders in the construction and running of the facility
  4. International cooperation – to leverage resosurces and exprtise currently not available in Kenya at the moment.

A Kenya-based observatory would also address the following:

  1. Brain drain: The establishment of an observatory would help to reverse the brain drain in this area, bringing in professionals in this discipline from around the world. 
  2. Economic Uplift: The sites that have been shortlisted are in economically neglected parts of the country. The construction and maintenance of an observatory would provide some measure of local employment.
  3. Tourism: Once a site is established, one telescope tends to attract others. Several institutions in South Africa and the United States have turned their observatory sites into significant tourist attractions. For Kenya, this would represent a major diversification in its tourism product. 
  4. Promotion of  STEM: The skills needed to build and operate astronomical instruments can be readily applied to other areas. 
  5. Outreach: The observatory will be used within a broader outreach programme to attract young people into science and engineering. A model for this is the National Schools Observatory (NSO) in the UK, who provide educational materials for schools to a telescope similar to that envisaged for Kenya. The NSO are interested in partnering with Kenyan groups.

Since there exists no local tradition for optical astronomy in the country, the construction of an observatory in Kenya would need to be undertaken with the involvement both of foreign capital and expertise. An observatory in Kenya could thus meet the needs of international research institutions while enabling a local astronomical community to grow over a period of years. It would also act as a focus for Kenyan talent that would otherwise drift abroad.” Says Dr. Martyn Wells

Kenya Optical Telescope Initiative
The meeting also explored the benefits an observatory can bring to capacity building in science, engineering and technology at all levels from primary schools to universities and industry.

At this stage, it is envisaged that a principal telescope with a mirror diameter of 1.4 metres would be sufficient. Observatories of this class generally cost in the region of $1.5 million – $4 million, depending upon the amount of peripheral infrastructure that has to be established. 

What has been done so far? 

Under a grant that was given jointly by NACOSTI in Kenya and the National Research Foundation (NRF) in South Africa, a detailed analysis of satellite data has revealed half a dozen sites that have the potential to host world class observatories. Of these, two – Mount Kulal and Ol Donyo Nyiro – are off the southern shore of Lake Turkana. What remains to be done is to install ground-based instrumentation at both of these sites to establish which is the most suitable. 

Rose Kathomi is excited to discover endless opportunities in astronomy for young people like her. She is a student at Technical University of Kenya studying Technical and Applied Physics.

Broad-band contact with the outside world is critical, and Safaricom have undertaken to provide this using their local base transmission stations, as and when the site has been finalised. 

It has also been suggested that a much smaller ‘outreach’ observatory be established in other locations in Kenya, which provide reasonable site conditions, but has the advantage of being much more accessible to students from Nairobi and other population areas. 

Kenya Optical Telescope Initiative
One of the telescopes on display at the conference.

The current grant funding from the UK expires at the end of March 2019. By then, we will have ground-based instruments feeding weather data to researchers on the project that will enable us to finalise a site within the next two years. 

Patrick Ning’i, a student of Technical and Applied Physics at Technical University was happy to be at the conference. He learnt the steps taken to ensure an astronomical operation is successful.

Says Professor Baki “We need Kenyan Government involvement in the form of official endorsement and funding for the smaller outreach telescopes while this data is being gathered, as well as support for the continuing operation of the local working party. At the same time, we shall be seeking international funding for the construction of the main telescope itself.”  

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About UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

The Science and Technology Facilities Council is part of UK Research and Innovation – a new body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. STFC funds and supports research in particle and nuclear physics, astronomy, gravitational research and astrophysics, and space science and also operates a network of five national laboratories. We aim to maximise the contribution of each of our component parts, working individually and collectively. We work with our many partners to benefit everyone through knowledge, talent and ideas.

About the UK Global Challenges Research Fund

The body behind the grant with funding of 14M KSH, the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) supports cutting-edge research and innovation that addresses the global issues faced by developing countries. It harnesses the expertise of the UK’s world-leading researchers, focusing on: funding challenge-led disciplinary and interdisciplinary research; strengthening capability for research, innovation and knowledge exchange; and providing an agile response to emergencies where there is an urgent research or on-the-ground need. It is a £1.5 billion fund which forms part of the UK Government’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment and is overseen by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and delivered through 17 delivery partners including the Research Councils, the UK Academies, the UK Space Agency and funding bodies.

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