Ethiopia has built an astronomical observatory, taking the first step towards creating a fully-fledged national space agency. With this, Ethiopia joins a handful of other African nations, including Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt, that have their own space programs, and the government hopes the move will boost the local agriculture and communication industries, writes Wagaye Berhanu.
Ethiopia’s fledgling space science program has been beset by perception problems among some members of the public. “We are not into deep-space science, probing for signs of life on Mars, or for the presence of precious minerals on asteroids, etc.,” Alemiye Mamo, the acting director of the Public and International Relations Directorate with the Entoto Observatory and Research Center (EORC), said. In an exclusive interview he gave to The Reporter the previous Wednesday, Alemiye noted that creating awareness of the community in the field of space science and technology is one of the strategic goals of EORC.
Speaking to perception problems on space science and technology development in Ethiopia, the acting director said some people would go so far as suggesting that the country’s meager resources be better directed towards such crucial programs as food security. There are still others keen on comparing funds earmarked for the space program with those for other sectors of the economy, he noted, and added that science is a sine qua non for economic development of a country, and space science is an integral part of that. In fact, one of the rationales for the launching of Ethiopia’s space program, according to a March 2016 publication by EORC is “…to maximize the application of space-driven technologies for sustainable development to alleviate poverty and ignorance. Space science and technology-driven products can be used for modernization of agriculture, enhance food security and early warning, disaster management, …”
Alemiye said that even though it had been written off as being overly ambitious at its inception, Ethiopia’s nascent space program had registered quite a few achievements. Among these were the hosting of regional and international exhibitions and workshops in the past and, along that line, he mentioned two upcoming space science-related events to be held in Ethiopia.
According to information posted on EORC’S website, the first one is the 39th International School for Young Astronomers (ISYA) 2017 slated to take place in Addis Ababa between May 8 and 19, 2017. Jointly organized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters (NASL) and local partners, close to 40 college students are expected to attend the two-week-long series of lectures on astronomy and astrophysics.
The other is the Fourth Middle East and Africa Regional IAU Meeting (MEARIM IV) that will be held from May 22 to 25, 2017 with the theme, “Exploring Our Universe for the Benefit of Humankind”. MEARIM is convened triennially, and the purpose of the Addis Ababa meeting would be to bring stakeholders together, “and openly discuss their experiences, existing and future challenges, and opportunities of astronomy in driving socio-economic development of the region, inspiring young professionals… promote R&D in astronomy to benefit humankind,” according to a booklet prepared for the occasion. Some 400 participants are going to attend the conference organized by the East Africa Regional Office of Astronomy for Development (ROAD), and local partners, viz., EORC and the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute (ESSTI).
It has indeed come a long way. According to acting director Alemiye, it all started as a pastime by a group of amateur space enthusiasts who used to get together at Jan Meda (a large meadow in the vicinity of 6 Kilo) to do telescope-aided observation of the nocturnal sky. In 2004, they agreed to set up the Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS), the pioneering body in the field of space science in Ethiopia, with members drawn from government agencies as well as academic and business interests.
In January 2013, EORC was officially established as an independent research and training center owned and run by ESST as well as 33 universities, one of them a private one. Fully financed by Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Al-Amoudi, twin one-meter diameter state-of-the-art telescopes were installed in December 2014 at Entoto, the site of its observatory atop the escarpment on the northern outskirts of Addis Ababa. Works are also under way to install a second telescope facility at Lalibela, Alemiye said.
With the launching of the Entoto Observatory (the first one of its kind in east Africa), Ethiopia has joined the family of African nations actively engaged in aerospace science. An article which appeared on the CNN website on December 12, 2013, under the heading, “Africa’s super telescopes ‘will inspire science boom’,” has the following to say about Africa’s space endeavor:
“While South Africa boasts the best resources on the continent, …observatories of all shapes and sizes are scattered all over Africa…in Burkina Faso, Namibia, Nigeria,
Egypt to name a few. Other countries are focusing on training the next generation of astronomers, with the University of Nairobi in Kenya, for example, offering an undergraduate course in astrophysics….”
Himself a PhD candidate in astronomy and astrophysics with the hope of pursuing a career in observational astronomy, Alemiye noted that lack of local expertise in the field was one of the challenges at the outset, and developing the necessary capacity as well as conducting research in the field of space science is among the core missions of EORC. Along this line, Alemiye pointed out that following development and validation of curricula, EORC had started offering post-graduate degrees in various space science-related fields of study to Ethiopian students (representing well over 90 percent of the student body) as well as those drawn from the east Africa region.
Accordingly, there are 43 PhD candidates pursuing studies in astronomy and astrophysics; space science; remote sensing; and geodesy, the acting director said, and added that two students in astronomy and astrophysics as well as four students in remote sensing fields of study had already graduated from EORC’s MSc program. He also noted that as the only institution in the region with a one-meter diameter telescope, EORC serves as a center of excellence in astronomy and astrophysics, and also in space science research in east Africa.
Underscoring the fact that building regional, continental and international partnerships is one of EORC’s missions, Alemiye said that scientists engaged in astronomy and astrophysics, and drawn from Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda had set up the East African Astronomical Research Network. Exchange of students is going on in that spirit of partnership, and one student each from Uganda and Rwanda are pursuing PhD studies at EORC while an Ethiopian recently completed her studies in Uganda. On the other hand, while every effort is made to recruit its faculty locally, EORC is still heavily dependent on an expatriate teaching staff, with professors coming from institutions in Asia, Europe and the U.S., the acting director noted.
Alemiye said that many institutions are (interested in) collaborating with EORC, and scientific bodies in South Korea, the U.S. (EORC/NASA exchange of visits are worth noting here), France, Russia and China were just some of the entities that ties have already been forged with.
As promoting space science is one of its core missions, EORC has been offering educational outreach and community services. In this regard, acting director Alemiye said over 9,000 visitors had already attended site tours at the Entoto Observatory. One of the desired outcomes of the tours is to inspire young children and students, and help them develop a passion for science in general, and space science in particular. Alemiye further noted that tours are currently organized during weekdays, with plans for expanding the program to weekends as well as during nighttime. (Information on tours is available on EORC’s website: www.eo.org.et.)
By way of listing more of the achievements registered so far by EORC, Alemiye cited 59 students currently pursuing post-graduate studies in various disciplines related to space science as well as 30 research papers published in noted academic journals. There is also a satellite program, with plans to launch one as a medium-term goal. Under the heading “Ongoing Projects,” the March 2016 publication specifically mentions the satellite project: “…to develop a launch-ready satellite with remote sensing capability. The plan is to develop satellite infrastructure in Ethiopia by Ethiopians through learning-by-doing approach to address the most pressing socio-economic and environmental issues….”