Asking the big questions

While South Africa’s astronomical community is not quite boldly going where no man has gone before, it is certainly entering new territory for local researchers and scientists.

This is on the back of a team of astronomers, cosmologists and astrophysicists with an international footprint taking up top Research Chairs at universities around the country to bolster local capacity. Through these Chairs, South Africa has made clear its ambitions and intentions to play a part in the global study of the universe.

Professor Tom Jarret at the University of Cape Town, for example, heads the Astrophysics and Space Physics Chair, under which he is training the next generation of astronomers.

His research work is based on the use of space telescopes to produce a picture of what the universe looks like, including its extent, the structure and location of galaxies, as well as how they are formed and have evolved.

He says: “The Chair enables me to make an impact on the local capacity within the field of astronomy by positioning South Africa as a valued member of the global community researching these big-picture questions. This is achieved through the actual research that is done using data from global collaborators as well as the publication of research papers and participating in international meetings and debates. An important outcome of this work is, naturally, the production of the next generation of space scientists, particularly young, black and female graduates.”

He commends SARChI for enabling these opportunities, especially given that the pool of potential South African astronomers is quite small and that their training requires at least four to five years of study.

Although Jarret’s research group draws on data from space telescopes, this data will be of great value to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) that will be looking deep into the origins of the universe using radio telescope technology. The astrophysicists’ contribution to this project will be to provide data that SKA scientists can use to interpret the radio astronomy imagery.

According to Jarret, building this local expertise is crucial to South Africa realising the full benefit of hosting part of this global space science experiment.

Professor Romeel Davé at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) is involved in similar explorations through the Chair in Cosmology with Multi-Wavelength Data: Exploiting SALT and MeerKAT, which was awarded in 2012.

His work also draws on space telescope observations across different wavelengths that present different spectra and therefore show up the different characteristics of galaxies. This information is then manipulated using supercomputers to run models of the universe that try to build a better understanding of galaxies, how they formed and how they have changed over time.

He explains that this work is therefore concerned more with the theoretical interpretation of data collected. This data is collected partly by the MeerKAT and the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) observatories. The former is a smaller component and predecessor of the infrastructure that is being built in the SKA project, while the latter is the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, situated in Sutherland, South Africa.

He says the importance of hosting the Research Chair at UWC is that the South African scientific community can benefit from hosting these world-class observatories.

“My role is to make sure we do this analysis in-house so that we can deliver new data to the world. At the same time, building critical skills in this area is important to the goal of having South African scientists doing the research and receiving the credit for it.”

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