News Feature | July 14, 2017

Africa's Old Communication Antennas Reborn As Radio Telescopes

By Jof Enriquez
Follow me on Twitter @jofenriq

ghana-antenna
The 32-meter Ghanaian radio telescope in Kutunse, Accra. Image courtesy of SKA Africa

Ghana says it has successfully refurbished and converted an old telecommunications antenna into a radio telescope, one of several radio-based antennas that will comprise the African Very Large Baseline Interferometer (VLBI) Network (AVN).

The 32-meter converted beam waveguide antenna at the Ghana Intelsat Satellite Earth Station at Kutunse, just outside the country's capital Accra, has completed combination 'first light' science observations, including methanol maser detections, VLBI fringe testing, and pulsar observations, and is now operated as a single-dish radio telescope.

Scientists at the Ghana Space Science and Technology Institute (GSSTI) and the Square Kilometre Array South Africa/Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (SKA SA/HartRAO) have collaborated since 2011 to repurpose the Ghanaian antenna into a functioning radio telescope that will become part of the African VLBI Network (AVN) in preparation for second phase construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) across the African continent.

The SKA, a collection of antennas spread over large distances in Australia and Africa with a collecting area of 1 million square meters, will be the world’s most powerful interferometric radio telescope, with speeds up to 10,000 times faster and sensitivity 50 times greater than any other existing radio telescope.

"The Ghanaian government warmly embraces the prospect of radio astronomy in the country and our radio astronomy development plan forms part of the broader Ghana Science, Technology and Innovation Development Plan," said Professor Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, Ghana's Minister of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation (MESTI).

The Leverhulme-Royal Society Trust and Newton Fund in the United Kingdom are funding training programs and bursaries for masters and PhD students from Ghana and other SKA partner countries who will maintain and operate SKA SA’s network of radio telescopes in nine countries in Africa.

The African-European Radio Astronomy Platform (AERAP) says many telecommunications dishes across Africa have been made redundant by newer terrestrial and marine optical-fiber networks, and that operators are willing to hand over the facilities for conversion, reported Space.com.

"A vital part of the effort towards building SKA on the African Continent over the next decade is to develop the skills, regulations and institutional capacity needed in SKA partner countries to optimize African participation in the SKA," said Naledi Pandor, the South African Minister of Science and Technology.

Pandor adds that the expanding SKA program "will bring new science opportunities to Africa on a relatively short time scale and develop radio astronomy science communities in SKA partner countries," which include Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zambia.