Astronomy in Africa: The Past, The Present and The Future

The history of science and technology in Africa has received little attention compared to other regions of the world, despite notable developments in various fields. Africa is home to the world’s oldest technological achievement in the world, with evidence found in NorthEastern Africa.  A 7,000-year-old stone circle known as Nabta Playa located approximately 100 kilometres west of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt, which is older than the Stonehenge in England, the world’s most famous prehistoric monument which was erected 5,000 years ago in 2,500 BC.  

The site located in Africa, stands 700 miles from the great pyramid of Giza in Egypt, according to the time of its construction, making it the oldest stone circle and possibly Earth’s oldest astronomical site.  In an article published by astronomy, a leading resource website on columns and articles on sky viewing, astronomy and astrophysics,  the 7000-year-old stone circle tracked the summer solstice and the arrival of the annual monsoon season.

The Nabta Playa Site

It is said to have been constructed by a cattle worshipping cult of nomadic people. In a statement with Astronomy, Mckim Malville, a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and Archaeoastronomy expert, stated that “the existence of the site is human beings’ first attempt to make a serious spiritual connection with the heavens”. He further added that “the awakening of the people to begin to construct the Nabta Playa was the dawn of observational astronomy”.

As a new millennium arises, scholars still consider the study of astronomical practices in African Societies an open one. Astronomical studies happen in Arabic, Ge’ez, Hausa and Swahili, studying celestial symbols such as the sun, moon, star, comet etc. Embedded in African history showing new evidence of the African involvement in astronomy, which makes it no surprise that Muusa Galaal’s work on Somali ethnoastronomy is derived from oral literature possibly passed down generations. (Galaal 1992).

An illustration of the Nabta Playa being used [Credits: The Human Project]
For many years, societies in Africa arranged stones aligning the stars and sun to mark seasons, to know when to harvest crops and mark celebrations.

The rest of the world has, however, surpassed Africa in architecture, technology, science and especially, astronomy even though they were pioneers.  In a study on the development of astronomy in Africa by Govinder K published in June 2011, a significant challenge is the absence of public understanding of modern scientific knowledge, leading to misconceptions. As different cultures have different propositions with the sky and their operation, the inclusion of contemporary science which may clash with their beliefs might make the public write it off as a mere tale or perceive it as evil.

African researchers have expressed the challenges faced in pushing their research. According to Edward Jurua, a physicist and founder of the astronomy programme at Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Uganda; “it was an issue recruiting members for a new astronomy programme as astronomy was not offered in any of the Universities situated in Uganda coupled along with the lack of financial resources”. 

“A country where over 70 % of its people cannot afford a three square meal per day, how would they afford to fund astronomy? The lucky ones who are able to want to further their dreams to study astronomy often meet mentors from outside the continent to motivate them”.

Pankyes Datok, a PhD student in hydrology and biogeochemistry at Paul Sabatier University, Toulouse, France, highlights the lack of awareness yet to enter the African continent on Modern Science and Technology as a challenge; “when the people are made to understand, inspired and motivated, more people would spring up to study and collaborate on astronomy”.

Salma Sylla Mbaye, the first  PhD student in Astronomy in Senegal at Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar mentions that the “unavailability of resources such as telescopes and computers and the lack of lecturers in that field of study” has another challenge. Students in Africa wish to pursue astronomy as an interest, but there are not scholars to teach them. 

Various technologies lead to the development of astronomy, which nations that have taken into account have benefited. According to researchers, the Iphone’s camera, a device created and developed by Apple, is a charge-coupled device which converts the movement of electrical charge into a digital value. The astronomy invention now serves as a source of benefit to societies involved, thereby boosting their technological advancement. 

The computer language Forth initially developed for the 36-foot telescope on Kitt Peak is now used by FedEx to track packages. Forth benefits are examples of what Africa has missed in the slow development of Astronomy while the rest of the world has forged ahead. 

Until recently, South Africa, Namibia, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, were the only astronomy references in Africa with their optical observatories. As of 2019, twelve countries in Africa have launched Forty-one satellites, with thirty-eight of them started by eleven of those countries individually, while the other three programmes involved several African countries in a multilateral project. 

The Future of Astronomy in Africa shines brightly now as countries are taking extra steps with an African groundbreaking achievement with the launching of a 64-MeerKat array in South Africa. The project launched in 2018 by the Deputy President, David Mabuza, would serve as an inspiration towards the aspirations of the people. The South African MeerKat radio telescope, which will be the largest in Africa (for now), is the first of the SKA series and will be integrated into the mid-frequency component of the SKA phase. It will be critical to building the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in Africa with its locations stated as South Africa and Australia. 

South African Astronomical Observatory
Photo: South African Astronomical Observatory. Source: TravelGround

With some Astronomical Observatories in Africa, its full astronomical potential is vital for its development. According to the African Astronomical Society, The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) is the largest ( at 11 meters) single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, funded by India, South Africa, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland and New Zealand. It is in Sutherland. 

The second largest at 1.9m diameter, The SAAO telescope, was built for the Radcliffe Observatory in Pretoria but now located in Sutherland. The largest telescope in North and Central Africa and the Middle East (1.88 diameters) at the Kottamia Observatory, northeast of Helwan in Egypt. 

The UFS- Boyden Rockfeller, (1.5m) located at Boyden Observatory in South Africa has been used extensively since the early 1930s. The Dall-Kirkham Reflector and The Parks Telescope with an aperture of 0.45m and 0.41m were constructed in 1955 and 1994, located in SAAO in Cape Town.

Also in 2020, The University of Namibia and The Radboud University Nijmegen, through a partnership signed in 2016, were reported to have added to the strings of mega astronomy projects as reported in April 2020, The Africa Millimeter Telescope, a 15-m single-dish radio telescope to be positioned on the Gamsberg Mountain in Namibia. Its purpose would be to yield a link to a grid of telescopes located around the world known as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT).

Asides from providing a relationship, the Africa Millimeter Telescope will serve as the only radio telescope in Africa. It would serve as an excellent opportunity for scholars, researchers, science enthusiasts and Namibia as a whole.