Minister of Science and Technology launches NWU Mahikeng Astronomy Observatory

Issued by North West University
Johannesburg, Sep 11, 2018

The Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, launched the Mahikeng Astronomical Observatory at North-West University's (NWU's) campus in Mahikeng, on 7 September 2018.

The Mahikeng Astronomy Observatory houses the Mahikeng Astronomy Telescope (MAT).

The campus in Mahikeng is the first historically disadvantaged institution in South Africa to develop an observatory for astronomy research, putting the institution on par with well-established institutions such as the universities of the Western Cape and Cape Town.

The MAT is co-funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and is led by Prof. Thebe Medupe, who is the current chair of the National Astrophysics and Space Science (NASSP) programme.

The purpose of the MAT is to develop astronomy and related sciences at historically disadvantaged universities, and also to demonstrate the country's growing capabilities in the field.

The telescope is a 16-inch Meade LX200 GPS housed at the Mahikeng Astronomical Observatory. It will be used for bright star research 60% of the time, allowing astronomers at the campus to study the interiors and the evolution of stars. Since it can be operated remotely, it will also be used for outreach purposes across the country.

The establishment of the MAT follows recent developments in astronomy in the country, including the launch of the 64-dish MeerKAT, the HIRAX Telescope Project by a consortium led by the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and the MeerLICHT Telescope in Sutherland.

Speaking at the launch, Minister Kubayi-Ngubane said the vision for the department is to make South Africa a hub for astronomy sciences and facilities, as articulated in the National Strategy for Multi-wavelength Astronomy.

"The strategy has enabled South Africa to take maximum advantage of its historical strengths in astronomy, its clear southern skies in the Karoo, its engineering and scientific base, and our growing global ranking in astronomy," she said.

The minister said it was for these reasons that South Africa has won the bid to host the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2024. It will be the first time this global association of professional astronomers will meet in Africa in what will be its 105th year of existence.

"The opportunity for many African astronomers to take part in one of the world's biggest astronomy meetings will contribute to an enduring legacy of astronomy on the continent," she said.

Prof. Medupe said the telescope would help the NWU to attract many young black students to science, producing more scientists for the future.

"The telescope will also be used to train postgraduate students in observational and data analysis techniques. As a result, the telescope will contribute towards building a more inclusive astronomy community, since most of the students being trained are black South Africans," said Prof. Medupe.

During his address, the NWU vice-chancellor, Prof. Dan Kgwadi, thanked the minister, the DST and all exhibitors who took part in the launch of the observatory for all their support.