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OPINION – Space, South Africa’s New Frontier

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JOHANNESBURG – By hosting the World Cup this month, South Africa is set to defy Africa’s image as too poor and trouble-ridden to stage one of the world’s great spectacles. With its pursuit of research into the farthest reaches of the universe – deep space – South Africa hopes to provide further proof that Africans can compete at all levels.

South Africa is investing heavily to join the world’s leaders in space research. The government is investing in “micro” satellites, building on its existing SumbandilaSat platform.

It is also leading the African effort to host what is widely described as potentially the world’s largest scientific instrument, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope. The SKA, whose massive collection of dishes would stretch across nine African countries, is a next-generation telescope that will examine gas clouds in the early universe at 100 times the power of the most powerful existing radio telescope, the Very Large Array in New Mexico.

An international selection committee has already eliminated China and South America, leaving only Australia and Africa – both clear choices for geographic reasons – in the running. To lend credibility to its bid to host the SKA, in 2006 South Africa’s government committed $250 million to build an array of radio dishes within its own borders as a precursor to the SKA. Seven of the planned 80 dishes in the network have been built.

Now people are taking South Africa seriously as a player in space research. Today, the country is believed to have about 60 working astronomers, more than half of all the astronomers working in Africa. “South Africa is the jewel of African astronomy,” says Charles McGruder, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Western Kentucky University.

In a country that is deeply divided economically, “What on earth is the benefit to the poor and the downtrodden of deep space research?” asks physicist Harold Annegarn, a professor at the University of Johannesburg. “The answer,” he says, “is partly that by supporting a thriving top-level intellectual community, we can train our next generation of intellectuals.”

McGruder, who works closely with African astronomers, agrees that a space program for the region is critical to raising the profile of careers in science and engineering in a part of the world where the most educated people still go into finance or management. “Success in space research can capture the imaginations of a whole generation of young Africans,” he says. “By putting Africa on the world’s ‘science map,’ more brainy Africans will be encouraged to stay at home, because recognition for their talents will come.”

Experts on economic development in Africa naturally concentrate on basic technologies: clean water, energy for cooking, electricity, and improved roads. Even in South Africa, the wealthiest country on the continent, millions of people lack basics. But space research is expected to yield practical benefits. One payoff can come from Africans building distinctive satellite instruments, and thus spawning a globally competitive industry. Better ways to cope with climate change also can come from space research.

Farmers, for example, might choose crops and growing patterns based on knowledge from earth observations. And, because space exploration requires communications and control over vast distances, some of the applications could also enhance South Africa’s lucrative mining sector; after all, controlling machines under the ground is similar to doing so in deep space.

To be sure, South Africa’s push to join the world’s technological leaders is not limited to space research. The country is also home to thriving communities of scientists and engineers specializing in nuclear and solar energy, software encryption, coal-to-oil conversion and even electric cars.

No other African country comes close to matching South Africa in even a single area of research and development. Base on published research papers, the country accounts for 64% of all research undertaken in Africa.

“There are a lot of surprising innovations coming from South Africa,” says David Kaplan, an economist at the University of Cape Town who specializes in tracking technological change. “But the gap between esoteric knowledge and economic applications remains large.”

Closing that gap should happen more quickly with the help of the international community. Not only does the world’s largest telescope network “belong in Africa,” says Sune Svanberg, a physicist at Lund University in Sweden. “Good forces also can join with the African scientist to create many small-scale projects in the region that are realistic to operate.”

G. Pascal Zachary is the author of Married to Africa: a Love Story. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010. www.project-syndicate.org

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