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South Africa skies


AAA member Stan Honda sent to us the following material recollecting his experiences while visiting South Africa during the 2010 Wold Cup.


Thank you Stan!


In June I was in South Africa for the World Cup and had several great astronomy experiences. I’m a photographer with Agence France-Presse, the French wire service, and was sent there with almost 100 other photographers, reporters and editors to cover the soccer matches. I was assigned to photograph the Australian team (the “Socceroos”), who were staying and practicing in an area to the north west of Johannesburg. So my company put me up at a bed & breakfast in a fairly rural area, the first night I was there I walked out and noticed how well I could see the Milky Way, though I was only 20-25 miles outside of Johannesburg. The b&b proprietor told me about a “big NASA antenna” nearby that occasionally gave tours. On a map I saw Hartebeesthoek Radio Astrononmy, about 27 km from Apricot Hill Farm, the b&b. These are two entries from a blog I wrote about the three weeks I was in South Africa.

Tuesday, June 15
The Socceroos have a day off and so no media availability. I went on a fascinating tour of the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (Hart RAO), about 30 minutes from Apricot Hill. The original 26-meter antenna was built by NASA to track satellites, especially the early lunar probes. It’s in an ideal location, high altitude, dry climate and outside the tropical zones of the Earth. It’s used now for various astronomical research and also as a type of GPS with other radio telescopes to accurately detect movement of the continents.
I missed the monthly Saturday public tour so I emailed their Science Awareness Programme and actually got a reply. So Marion West, one of the resident astronomers, agreed to give me a private tour. Her specialty is the shell of expanding gas around an exploded star, something that will happen to our sun in “5,000 million years” she says.
The Hart RAO is a fairly basic facility in a relatively quiet area northwest of Johannesburg. The centerpiece is the big 26-meter antenna and there are several smaller antenna, all doing ‘radio’ astronomy- looking at objects in the sky by detecting their radio wave emissions. So they can do observing 24 hours a day, since light and usually weather doesn’t affect their observing.
But many things do affect the telescopes, mainly anything that emits any kind of frequency, like cell phones and microwaves. So they can’t have any of those at the site. Marion said often a car starting up can cause a ‘glitch’ in their data. The creeping suburban sprawl of Johannesburg will have an effect in a few years, the astronomers say.
Marion rummaged around in a storage room of educational things and found a small dish antenna, an electronic box, a lamp and extension cord. So we took all of this outside where she demonstrated how various items emit radiation in the form of radio waves. It was fairly low tech but effective. A school group happened to be there at the same time, they have a pretty big visitor center with all sorts of hands-on displays.
In the control room for the big telescope, she showed me the various instruments that looked like they were out of an old NASA film of the 60’s space program. Marion explained they did date from the 60’s when NASA built the telescope. Finding parts is difficult, such as tiny pens for the graph paper and tiny incandescent bulbs for the control panel lights.
Marion also showed me a demonstration antenna for the SKA- the Square Kilometre Array, a giant radio telescope project that South Africa and Australia are bidding for. It is planned for the western region of South Africa and have about 10 times the sensitivity of the Arecibo telescope and 50 times the sensitivity of the Expanded Very Large Array. The total collecting area is expected to be 1 square kilometer.
Friday, June 18
Had a great tour of the night sky from Sam Rametse at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory last night. Marion, my guide on Tuesday, emailed to say there was an overnight school group and Sam, part of the Science Awareness Outreach Programme, was doing stargazing. So, after a meal of ostrich at the Post & Rail, I head to the observatory.
Sam greets me and says the kids didn’t want to go out in the cold, but he could give a tour for me. It was a high school group from Limpopo province, in north eastern South Africa. Apparently the teacher was asleep already (8:30pm) and the kids seem to be in a party mood, not too interested in the night sky. Sam worked in education and was saying that undisciplined children seem to come from the more underprivileged background, exactly the group that needs discipline, while very privileged children seem to be the most disciplined. 
Later, Sam, who is black, talked about being black and needing good role models, unfortunately there were few or none in a field like astronomy. He said kids want to be doctors, because they see successful black doctors. He had been to New York once, and visited the Rose Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. Sam proudly said he had met Neil de Grasse Tyson, head of the planetarium and one of the few prominent black Americans in astronomy. 
But having a guide to the southern sky was great for me. Sam rolled out a 12 inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and set it up on a concrete slab behind one of the buildings. The trail of the Milky Way stretched across the sky, despite the various lights on the buildings and antennae. I saw stars, constellations that we can’t see in the northern sky. We traded various objects: Southern Cross (south), Big Dipper (north), Magellanic Clouds (south), Orion (north). It was darker at the observatory site than at Apricot Hill, so I managed to get some nice photos of the faint Milky Way and the 26 meter radio antenna.
Sam asked what the crescent moon looked like where I lived. I told him the crescent was either on the left or right side, I saw a few days earlier as I photographed the moon setting with Venus from outside the b&b that the crescent was more towards the bottom, making a U-shape. Sam said during an alignment of the moon, Venus and Jupiter recently the trio made a ‘face’ since the moons’ shape was upturned like a smile.
Though the observing session was short and it was quite cold out it was a great experience.


The 26 meter telescope at night, the Milky Way above it.


Sam, the night sky guide I had looking through the 12-inch Celestron telescope, with the Milky Way above him.


Demonstration antenna for the Square Kilometre Array


Crescent Moon and Venus are seen at sunset on June 14, 2010.