South Africa into the space at Scifest Africa

A learner peering through a microscope at one of the interactive exhibitions at Scifest Africa (Supplied)

A learner peering through a microscope at one of the interactive exhibitions at Scifest Africa (Supplied)

Astronomy and space sciences in Africa, and new milestones in the construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, will take centre stage at Scifest Africa, South Africa’s National Science Festival in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape from March 12 to 18.

It is routinely used to move supplies, equipment and even astronauts and plays a crucial role in the maintenance of the International Space Station. Start your journey with the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) workshops, which will paint the depth of the Solar System, the planets, their relationship to the sun and the similarities that Earth may have with other planets such as Mars.

It is widely known that from the dawn of time, indigenous peoples of Southern Africa have looked to the skies and used celestial observations to measure time, plot the stars’ movements through the skies and create their agricultural calendars. The Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) Unit of the Department of Science and Technology has a workshop, which will invite Scifest Africa visitors to take a tour of the Southern skies as interpreted by the indigenous people of South Africa and explore the interface of ancient knowledge and modern science.

Astronomy in Africa

EU Universe Awareness will open the door to the different ancient cultures around the world that have different myths and legends of the bodies dotted across our night sky. The story of the night sky has long been told in Africa. The legendary African city of Timbuktu in Mali, West Africa is home to ancient manuscripts that reveal that African scholars where studying and practicing astronomy as early as the 13th century. The lecture by Professor Thebe Medupe from the University of the North West at 1pm on Tuesday March 18, will tell the story of the treasure trove of these manuscripts.

His lecture will revel about astronomy in Africa, what was taught on astronomy at schools in Timbuktu in the 13th century and what the current status is on these manuscripts after conflict in Mali in 2013. We have heard that the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project will attract large amounts of capital and intellectual investments, but what is the science really about? Why is there such a fuss about the SKA project? Why is it such a great scientific coup?

Find out more through several programme items about the SKA at Scifest Africa, and follow the fascinating journey of how a humble 26 000 page bid proposal resulted in the shared site between Africa and Australia to host the world’s largest radio telescope, the SKA. The prototype of this instrument is already being constructed on our doorstep outside Carnarvon in the Northern Cape. A high level panel discussion on Astronomy in Africa at Scifest Africa at 3pm on March 12, will reflect on the important contributions Africans have made in this field and explore ways of reconciling indigenous knowledge with cutting edge research of the 21st century.

Co-operation in astronomy

This is the chance for visitors to find out how we reconcile African astronomy in space sciences in Africa, how we reconcile African astronomy practices with those of the West, how astronomy can strengthen bilateral co-operation, and what difference mega science projects such as the SKA radio telescope will make to your life. Chaired by Scifest Africa advisory committee chairperson, Kevin Govender, this panel will include representatives from the International Astronomical Union, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) the Southern African Large Telescope and the SKA.

You can learn more about South Africa’s space research at the SA National Space Agency workshop on EOSAT1: South Africa’s next "big" satellite set for launch in 2018. The multispectral, high resolution satellite will be used for Earth observation providing data to help improve food security, disaster management support, safety and security, and urban planning and development. If you’re into something a little smaller, join the French South African Institute of Technology and Sansa teams for a live satellite launching demonstration and learn more about TshepisoSAT and its uses.

TshepisoSAT (Code name ZACUBE-01), meaning “promising satellite”, is South Africa’s first nano-satellite. Only 30 x 10 x 10 cm in size and weighing a whopping three kilogrammes, the satellite was launched on November 21 2013 and captured its first images on December 14 2013.

Scifest Africa is supported by the department of science and technology, and remains the premier science festival in sub-Saharan Africa.

This article forms part of a supplement made possible by the Mail & Guardian's advertisers. The contents have been supplied and signed off by Scifest Africa.