Insight Into The USD 23M Africa Millimeter Telescope Being Built In Namibia.

Africa has a good history of Astronomy and is currently engaged in mega astronomy projects such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)– which is about building the world’s largest radio telescope and the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry (AVN), the latest addition to this is the Africa Millimetre Telescope. 

The Africa Millimetre Telescope (AMT) project is co-led by two teams at the Radboud University Nijmegen and the University of Namibia (through a partnership agreement signed in 2016) and aims at realizing a 15-m single-dish radio telescope on the Gamsberg mountain in Namibia. Its main purpose is to provide an essential link to the network of telescopes around the globe known as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) which has recently produced the first-ever picture of a black hole. With this groundbreaking accomplishment, the EHT presented the direct evidence for the existence of black holes, showing that Einstein (and hence the theory of General Relativity) was right. A major scientific breakthrough!

The Vice Chancellor of the University of Namibia, Prof. Lazarus Hangula and Prof. Gerard Meijer, president of the executive board of Radboud University, signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2016. Image Credit: Radboud University

In addition to forming an essential link in the EHT Network, the AMT will be the only radio telescope in the mm-wavelength regime in Africa, and as such provides unique science opportunities for Namibia. The impact is further enhanced by setting up an education and outreach programme and boosting innovation and spin-offs in Namibia.

Experience shows that the funding of such a telescope via conventional (inter)national science funding could take up to a decade, well past the end of operations of the Event Horizon Telescope. So while funding for the initial studies necessary for building the AMT is covered by scientific grants, further donations and private funds are sought to realize the construction of the telescope within the needed timeframe.

The estimated breakdown of cost is as follows:

  1. Project initiation & management (preparatory studies, telescope design, project planning and coordination, fundraising, travels etc.) estimated at €2.6M
  2. Getting the Telescope to Namibia (acquiring the telescope, breaking it down, shipping it to the Gamsberg and upgrading it) estimated at €2.4M
  3. Scientific instrumentation (making sure the telescope functions and has all the necessary instruments) estimated at €1.6M
  4. Local infrastructure (road upgrade, housing, power supply, network connection, the foundation for the telescope, data centre) estimated at €5M
  5. Construction of the telescope (building the telescope on the Gamsberg and fine-tuning all equipment) estimated at €1.3M
  6. Education & outreach (mobile planetarium, educational material, staff, scholarships etc) estimated at €1.2M
  7. Operation & maintenance (for 5 years) estimated at €3.3M

This makes a total of about €21.3 (USD23 million), 26% of which is covered by Radboud University Nijmegen and the University of Namibia, donation of the telescope by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) worth €3.5M and contributions from The Dutch Research School for Astronomy (NOVA; €450K). The AMT project needs financial support, please click here if you will like to support. 

In June 2019, a panel of international experts reviewed the technical design and requirements of the telescope and passed it to proceed into detailed design. Currently undergoing Critical Design Review (CDR), the actual building is supposed to begin before the end of the year depending on availability of funds.

The AMT first light and commissioning is now scheduled for the end of 2024, about 4 years following the CDR, and the final review for operational readiness is expected half 2025 which would mark the start of the operational phase of the AMT. Planning for the education and outreach part of the AMT is to start with the Mobile Planetarium Programme in September 2020. The other parts will follow from 2021.

Read: The Netherlands brings Mobile Planetarium to schools in Namibia

This telescope is not only an essential link in the world-class research on black holes. In addition, the project team tries to make sure it stimulates social and economic development in Namibia by donating 80% of the observing time, setting up an education and outreach programme and trying to boost innovation in Namibia. Click here to learn more about this project and support.