Creating a new generation of radio astronomers across Sub-Saharan Africa

A pioneering radio astronomy project, introducing skills and expertise to countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, has received a funding boost to continue its transformational work.

The Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) project has already trained more than 300 students and postgraduates in eight countries since its launch eight years ago. 

The new £6.5m cash injection will help to train a further 225 people over the next three years, equipping them with skills in radio astronomy and data science that they can then apply to other sectors and help address local development challenges such as water, agriculture and deforestation.

This third phase of DARA is being funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) – part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – via the International Science Partnerships Fund, in partnership with South Africa.  

Training and entrepreneurship

The core of the DARA programme is intensive hands-on training in high-level computing; radio technologies; observational techniques in radio and optical astronomy; and data reduction and analysis. This will be complemented by training events and workshops in AI applications involving astronomical and Earth observation data.  

The trainees also gain an understanding of potential development and entrepreneurship opportunities from DARA’s industrial partners from the space sector – all part of the project’s aspirations to do far more than simply create a new generation of radio astronomers. The aim is to develop space sector hubs with co-located services including radio telescopes, satellite downlink, and data centre facilities to foster jobs and economic opportunities. 

The new phase of DARA will also fund postdoctoral fellows in the African partner institutions for the first time, in a bid to attract researchers back to their home countries. The goal is to establish local experts who can utilise the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) – the world’s biggest radio telescope which is being built in South Africa. 

International collaboration

The project is led by the University of Leeds, and includes a number of partners from universities in the UK and South Africa. The University of Edinburgh joined DARA via a recent pilot project which trialled a new optical astronomy training element in Kenya, where a 40cm optical telescope was installed.

Professor Colin Snodgrass, from the School of Physics and Astronomy said:

We are very excited to be part of the DARA project and to expand the training that it offers to include optical astronomy as well as radio, so that the next generation of African astronomers are able to study the sky across all wavelengths. It is great to see our telescope at the Turkana Basin Institute, Kenya being used to train students from across Africa as part of DARA. This contributes to capacity building, locally and across the continent, and collection of valuable data on the quality of the night skies there, both of which are essential to our long term plans to develop a permanent astronomical observatory at this location.