In an exciting display of international cooperation and astronomical exploration, the University of Cape Town (UCT) hosted a delegation from the Netherlands government at the RW James Building on 14 October. The event, organised by the UCT Department of Astronomy, brought together renowned speakers who shared their insights on the boundless possibilities of astronomy research.
The director of the International Office at UCT, Dr Quinton Johnson, welcomed the Netherlands delegation on behalf of Vice-Chancellor interim Emeritus Professor Daya Reddy. Dr Johnson expressed the institution’s eagerness to “strengthen, deepen, and widen relationships” in the field of astronomy.
The highlight of the evening was a captivating address by the Minister of Education, Culture, and Science in the Netherlands, Professor Robbert Dijkgraaf. He underscored the remarkable investments made in astronomy and extended his gratitude for the warm welcome, highlighting the unifying nature of astronomy. He further acknowledged the unique astronomical vantage point South Africa holds.
“Astronomy has been a leading science because it brings people together.”
“Astronomy has been a leading science because it brings people together,” Professor Dijkgraaf said. “It makes you feel small when looking at the stars but also makes us all feel connected. South Africans have front-row seats with the best views of the Milky Way.”
Two key areas of research
Professor Paul Groot, SALT SARChI professor at UCT, emphasised the significance of diversity within research teams, citing UCT’s inclusive and diverse astronomy group as a source of joy. Professor Groot highlighted the strong collaboration between the Netherlands and South Africa, which has intensified enormously thanks to the bilateral memorandum of understanding on Astronomy and Enabling Technologies for Astronomy. It was launched in 2012, and supported exchange visits, joint workshops, and also led to numerous joint PhD degrees. The hope is to get more of these programmes in the future, he said.
Groot touched on two key areas of research:
Furthermore, he mentioned that future international developments in instrumentations such as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope and the Africa Millimeter Telescope (AMT) will allow South African and Dutch astronomers and the international community to work together to observe the universe with greater depth, speed, and clarity.
Importance of external partnerships and collaborations
Dr Sharmila Goedhart, the head of Science Operations at the SKA-Mid Telescope, introduced the SKA project, which is an international initiative in radio astronomy. She explained that the project involves the construction of operations centres and telescopes in two remote locations: Western Australia and the Karoo in South Africa. These sites were chosen for their peculiar radio quietness, which reduces the risk of interferences to the minimum.
Dr Goedhart explained that the SKA-Mid Telescope in South Africa comprises 197 dishes spanning 150 km, while the SKA-Low Telescope in Australia is of a different design, boasting 512 stations, each with 256 low-frequency antennas. She emphasised the significance of partnerships with universities for the SKA: “Collaborations with universities like UCT are super important to us at SKAO.”
Professor Mattia Vaccari, eResearch director and astroinformatics honorary professor at UCT, shared insights into the Inter-university Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA) and Ilifu, a cloud computing platform for data-intensive research. These initiatives, a partnership of three South African universities – UCT, the University of the Western Cape and the University of Pretoria – are crucial in enabling the scientific exploration of the very large datasets produced by radio telescopes such as MeerKAT and the SKA. They also offer opportunities for collaborations and joint investments in research, technology and human capacity, development, and demonstrate UCT’s commitment to the growth of data-intensive astronomy research.
There were three demonstrations after the formal programme: a live remote observation with the MeerLICHT telescope located in Sutherland, a star-gazing session with the RW James’ Fairall Observatory and a demo of the various visualisation tools under development in the IDIA Visualisation lab with Dr Lucia Marchetti (senior lecturer in the UCT Astronomy Department and project scientist of the lab). The latter included an immersive virtual-reality (VR) experience using the innovative IDIA VR software iDaVIE.
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