Dr. Paul Baki and fellow stargazers
When you think “countries on the cutting edge of deep space exploration,” Kenya is not usually the first that jumps to mind. But here in east Africa, there is a scientist/space pioneer by the name of Dr. Paul Baki who sees big things for the future of astronomy in the developing world.
This whole thing came about after I started looking into the possibility of life on other planets (I’m going to blow the lid off this thing, just wait). Crazily enough, NASA was too busy for interviews, so I looked a little closer to home and found Dr. Baki.
Dr. Baki remembers when Kenya launched its first satellite, Uhuru (meaning “freedom”) from Malindi in 1970. It was the world’s first earth-orbiting mission dedicated entirely to celestial X-ray astronomy, and big things were expected from the data it gathered. But “in all those years no one here made use of that data,” said Dr. Baki. “Many people got their PhDs from that satellite, but no Kenyans.”
After Uhuru, space science in Kenya pretty much ground to a halt. So Dr. Baki decided to spearhead the country’s contemporary burgeoning astronomy movement.
He founded Kenya’s first astronomy program at the University of Nairobi in 2008, a program that now has about 50 students. These days he’s also working at the Kenya Polytechnic University as head of the applied sciences department, trying to build momentum and pique some interest.
“There is a long tradition of looking to the stars in Kenya, but there is a lack of scientific knowledge,” he said.
Lagoon Nebula, shot with South Africa Large Telescope, aka SALT
Unfortunately, Dr. Baki’s work in Kenya currently includes handing out donated telescopes to colleges that will never use them, and dodging hyenas while stargazing in Masai Mara. Of course, things could be very different in a year’s time.
Kenya is part of an African space science alliance that is currently in the running to build the world’s largest radio telescope. Dubbed Square Kilometre Array (or SKA), the telescope would span eight African countries, collecting observatory data all the way from South Africa to Mauritius.
Kevin Govender is director of the just-opened Office of Astronomy for Development in South Africa, one arm of the International Astronomical Society. He really hopes Africa beats Australia for the bid, mostly because this would be one of the most badass science projects ever.
“The Square Kilometer Array is a basically an idea to build the biggest radio telescope that could ever be built, ever,” he said.
Radio astronomy is cool in the sense that it goes way beyond optical telescopes. We see light the way we do because our eyes can pick up certain wavelengths. If human eyes were able to see more wavelengths, such as infrared or ultraviolet, we could add some new colors to the rainbow. That’s pretty basic. Radio waves are another type of wavelength—invisible to humans, but jam-packed with tasty information about what lies beyond our universe. So if we build something that can see those, and can track them from way far away, we’re likely in for a big awakening.
“All these wavelengths are coming from astronomical objects, so in order to gain the most information possible, we need to look using different instruments. The cool thing about looking at radio waves is they travel through many objects and contain a lot of information. What you may not see in optical, you will see in radio,” said Govender.
Kevin Govender teaching an outreach program to kids in South Africa. Govender wants to get kids interested in outer space early, through more substantial channels than, say, Cowboys Vs. Aliens.
The idea behind building this massive, multi-national telescope is that using several huge dishes spread across an entire continent will allow scientists to collect huge amounts of light—enough that it’s actually like traveling back in time.
Some stars are so far away that the light they give off takes millions, billions of years to reach Earth. Some of the stars you see in the sky are already burnt out, and have been for a while, but the light they gave off has to travel so far that we still see it, only at night.
Scientists can look at that light to figure out how stars live and die, figure out the Big Bang, and maybe even get to the bottom of the whole “dark matter” situation.
Using the same “burnt-out star still shines bright” concept, scientists think they could find information on celestial bodies as they were millions of years ago. So if Square Kilometre Array comes to Africa, Govender and Dr. Baki will be studying the origins of the universe.
SALT's snapshot of something called 47 Tucanae
With SKA in Africa, not only would we know God’s secrets, Dr. Baki says he also sees astronomy as a tool for social development in Kenya and across sub-Saharan Africa, as satellite surveillance could help Kenya monitor itself. On top of searching for life on other planets, it could also be used to track weather patterns or terrible violence, if it got sophisticated enough. Like Google Street View, only... more.
Dr. Baki plans to have a space science department in the Kenya Polytechnic University by the end of next year. He and Govender will learn the fate of the Square Kilometre Array Project next month. And if all goes according to plan, Dr. Baki says, “this project would see huge developments in infrastructure, in training and education, and in data-gathering. We would be training engineers and creating hundreds of jobs. Most importantly, we would be sparking an interest in science and math across the country, which is critical to the future of Kenya.”
To infinity, and beyond! (Sorry. I have been waiting 913 words to say that.)