US-Africa Summit Session: Africa-US Astronomy Collaboration Towards IAU-GA2024 and Building a Legacy

The African Astronomical Society (AfAS) and the American Astronomy Society (AAS), in partnership with GA2024 organisers, the International Astronomical Union and the Office of Astronomy for Development (IAU-OAD), held a session on the Africa-US astronomy collaboration in preparation for the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU-GA2024). The session offered an opportunity for interactions between existing and potential Africa-US collaborators to promote beneficial options that may arise between Africa and the US. In addition, the forum provided opportunities for sustained collaborations between partners from the US and African countries to cultivate astronomy expertise.

The session was coordinated by Vanessa McBride and Charles Takalana, Co-Chairs of the IAU-GA2024 National Organising Committee. Vanessa McBride, in her presentation, delivered the opening keynote speech on the road to the IAU-GA2024 and the legacy of astronomy in Africa. This keynote speech discussed eight aspects of vision 2024 plans for the IAU general assembly, which will hold for the first time on the Africa continent in Cape Town.

The vision 2024 plans included intended developmental efforts in science, people, opportunities, funding, legacy, organisation, experience, and infrastructure. In science, the vision is to create an African astronomical committee fostering collaborations between astronomers and engineers on the continent. This will promote increased funding, scholarships, and support for the amateur communities on the continent. 

In terms of infrastructure, providing stronger internet connectivity, access to high-performance and cloud computing tools required to analyse big data, and ensuring support for teachers with hands-on experience through telescopes and other materials are important. Other promising growth areas involve using mobile applications to advance science outreach and harness significant amounts of astronomical data worldwide. Participants were invited to read this document for more information on the Vision 2024 plans.

The second segment of the session, moderated by Kevin Govender, the Director of the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), had Prospery Simpemba, the National Outreach Contact (NOC) for the International Astronomical Union; Timothy Tuck, STEM Education Development Officer, Associated Universities, Incorporated and National Radio Astronomy Observatory (AUI-NRAO); Nic Erasmus, Astronomer, South African Astronomical Observatory; Brian Chaboyer Chair, Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) Board; Grant Tremblay, Vice President, American Astronomical Society (AAS), and Thebe Medupe, President,  African Astronomical Society (AfAS).

Prosperity Simpeba discussed the Southern African Regional Office of Astronomy for Development’s (SAROAD) collaborations and highlighted some of the agency’s projects with the US. According to him, the majority of the projects were funded by the OAD, one of which is the Online Collaborations and Studentship Assistance sponsored by Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM (GLAS) Education, the Northern American Regional Office (NAROAD), SAROAD and West African Regional Office of Astronomy for Development (WAROAD). Other projects include 

  1. Astronomy courses for African students facilitated by Pan-African School for Emerging Astronomers (PASEA) in partnership with African scientists and international instructors; and
  2. A summer school financed by Astropy in partnership with OAD, AfAS, Copperbelt University, SAROAD, NSC, Dunlap Institute of Canada, and PanAfrican Planetary and Space Science Network (PAPSSN).

Tim Tuck gave a historical overview of the Northern America Regional Office of Astronomy for Development and discussed the five strategic goals of NAROAD. These goals involved advancing science diplomacy through astronomy; promoting Astro tourism; facilitating STEM education and outreach in collaboration with OAE, Office for Astronomy Outreach (OAO), and OAD; promoting productive employment opportunities, and supporting the general well-being of individuals, including programmes that support women and girls.

Nic Erasmus, on science-based collaborations between Africa and US, examined the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) project, specifically, the South African Node achievements constructed by Sutherlands and beneficial spinoffs. The South African Node’s domepad, pier and telescope, funded by NASA, were constructed, mounted and installed by SAAO staff. In January 2022, ATLAS Sutherland discovered its first near-earth asteroids and monitored the DART spacecraft’s impact on 26 September 2022. This project, according to Nic, provides South-African astronomers with the opportunity to access the ATLAS database. 

Brain Chaboyer, in his session, evaluated the history of SALT and its board of directors. The organisation is involved in initiatives designed to enhance development, such as collaborations between South-African researchers and SALT researchers. In addition, David Buckley stated the SALT transient program had been instrumental to transient object follow-ups since 2016. Also, the Vera Rubin Observatory, an eight metres telescope under construction and expected to be completed next year in collaboration with South Africa, will immensely contribute to the American Rubin society for transient follow-ups.

On the cooperation between the African Astronomical Society (AfAS) and the American Astronomical Society (AAS) session, Grant Tremblay discussed the importance of creating partnerships between America and Africa in the epoch of discoveries in space and astronomical demographics, engaging in strategic discussions to foster new partnership and grants programs to aid international collaborations across Africa, including large budget waivers for African astronomers to publish papers. Furthermore, this partnership will promote inclusivity and empowerment and help provide funding to increase the presence of African and African-American students in physics programs.

Thebe Medupe, contributing to the session, highlighted the challenges of AfAS.According to him, Africa is short of astronomers, thus, needs to engage in capacity-building and expertise exchange. Another challenge highlighted by Medupe is the absence of a strong astronomical society; thus, the partnership with AAS will play a vital role in growing the society. Likewise, there is a need to develop and invest in astronomical schools in Africa, like the PASEA, to ensure a sustainable environment.

In the concluding part of the summit, recommendations and solutions were collated to foster outreach efforts in African communities and aid collaboration between Africa and US. These were detailed in the resolution document, which includes the following:

1. African and US astronomy communities should be encouraged to participate in the IAU-GA in 2024 and to use this event to drive long-term collaboration in line with the vision for 2024 (https://astronomy2024.org/vision-2024/). For example, the proposed focus meetings on “Harnessing ground-based optical telescopes: an opportunity for emerging astronomy in Africa” and “Follow-up observations of small bodies in the Solar System in the era of large discovery surveys”;

2. There is a need for a coordinated capacity-building programme in science and technology based on, for example, the bi-directional exchange of personnel between Africa and the US, scholarship opportunities and potential co-supervision arrangements;

3. The respective societies, the African Astronomical Society (AfAS) and the American Astronomical Society (AAS) should lead efforts to promote participation in capacity-building programmes with the support of policymakers across Africa and the US;

4. There should be potential for collaborations and synergies for the mutual benefit of both the African continent and the US in infrastructure projects, hosting instruments on telescope sites, through amateur astronomy communities, and through access to telescopes and/or data. These and other collaborations should be encouraged;

5. Coordinated programmes should be developed to share opportunities, e.g. calls for proposals, funding possibilities, student exchanges, and hosting of astronomy schools, amongst others;

6. There should be clear areas for collaboration and mutual knowledge, and resource sharing in outreach and school-level education, including teacher engagements;

7. Astronomy can be used as a tool for development to deliver socioeconomic benefits and achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Office of Astronomy for Development and its regional offices (such as the North American Regional Office of Astronomy for Development and the Southern African Regional Office of Astronomy for Development) could stimulate such activities;

8. Special sessions dedicated to Africa-US collaborations should be encouraged during international/regional astronomy community meetings;

9. Joint astronomy initiatives between the US and the African continent should be seen as equal partnerships, with joint leadership of such initiatives encouraged from both regions;

10. These resolutions should be presented to the leadership structures of the respective astronomical societies (AAS and AfAS).