Students from African countries complete third HartRAO AVN training school

Nineteen students graduated from the third African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network training held at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory during March 2018.

The students, all hailing from Botswana, Zambia and Namibia, participated in the training which took place from 26 February to 23 March 2018.

The training is part of the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) project, which seeks to provide people in the targeted countries with training to use radio telescopes. The first four-week training at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) took place in 2016, focusing on Observational and Technical Training.

It also has an outreach programme to encourage young people to study the technological aspects of radio astronomy and pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. The project is funded by the DARA Newton Fund.

Since 2016 a training school was held every year, and this year two schools are taking place – one in March and another in April.

Dr Alet de Witt, Operations Astronomer at HartRAO and coordinator of the training programme, says that since the programme started, more hands-on practicals have been added and more demonstrations take place during lectures.

“We focus on keeping each lecture as interactive as possible. This hands-on experience and interactive teaching style is a great tool to stimulate discussion and to promote an atmosphere of attention and participation where students can test their skills in applying knowledge,” says De Witt.

“Since the inception of the DARA project we have made various upgrades to existing training instruments at HartRAO as well as investments in new training instruments, for example, our two-element interferometer. We also upgraded our lecture room to a state-of-the art training facility, with 40 computers dedicated to student training. To date we have trained more than 60 students from various African SKA Partner Countries,” continues De Witt.

By the end of April, another 20 students from Madagascar and Mozambique will be able to add this excellent training opportunity to their resumés.

The main focus of the training this year is the observational and technical side of radio astronomy. The Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC) also participated this year and presented a week’s training in Linux and Python during the first week of the school at HartRAO.

Several international scholars have been invited to and have been involved in the AVN training since 2016. This includes Chris Jacobs (NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA in 2016, 2017 and 2018); Dr Michael Bietenholz (York University, Canada in 2016, 2017 and 2018); Dr Christina Garcia Miro (SKA International in 2017); Daniel Hayden (SKA International in 2018); David Mayer (Vienna University of Technology in 2016, 2017 and 2018); Matthias Schartner (Vienna University of Technology in 2017 and  2018); and Andreas Hellerschmied (Vienna University of Technology in 2016), among others.

The graduation ceremony, which took place on Friday, 23 March 2018 at Hartebeestpoort Dam, was preceded by a talk by Chris Jacobs on Stellar GPS: Navigating the solar system, at HartRAO. Thereafter the students travelled to a venue at the Dam, where they graduated.

Professor Justin Jonas, Chief Technologist and Acting Managing Director of HartRAO, said that it is important to note that the course is ‘an old fashioned course in radio astronomy’.

“In this new age of millennials, everybody wants to get onto the new next biggest best thing as soon as possible. Unfortunately, there is a new generation of radio astronomers who have never seen a radio telescope and everything they do is from their laptop. They have never actually done a very fundamental observation with a radio telescope. The only way to understand any science, and radio astronomy in particular, is to go right back to the fundamentals,” said Prof. Jonas.

“I am very grateful to Alet and the others who are involved in putting this course together, for taking you right back to those fundamentals, to the first principles of physics and mathematics so that you have that grounded understanding of where you get your data from,” Prof. Jonas continued.

Chileshe Mutale, a 23-year old Physics and Geology student from Zambia, said that the course has expanded new horizons for her.

“This course has has really been really great – not only the course, but the people as well. In school they put you in a box, but when I saw this course, I decided to try it. It has opened my horizons.”

De Witt herself is a former recipient of an SKA bursary through its Human Capital Development Programme. She commenced her PhD studies in Astronomy and Astrophysics from 2006 and attended the very first SKA Postgraduate Bursary Conference as a postdoctoral student that same year.

“I joined HartRAO in 2012 as a postdoctoral student and in 2013 I was appointed as Operations Astronomer. I have been involved in training activities at HartRAO since 2013 and was involved in the DARA project since its inception,” says De Witt.

She completed her PhD in Radio Astronomy with a focus on celestial reference frames and calibrator sources for Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). Her research is focused on fundamental astronomy, in particular celestial reference frames.

De Witt is also part of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) working group on the realisation of the next generation International Celestial Reference Frame (ICRF-3) to be adopted at the XXXth General Assembly of the IAU in 2018. One of the goals of the ICRF-3 was the extension of the ICRF to higher radio frequencies, such as the K-band (22 GHz) reference frame.

De Witt is the principal investigator of the K-band celestial reference frame project and this project has received to date more than 600 hours of observing time on the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) and equal amounts of time on Southern VLBI instruments.

She is also the principal investigator and scheduler for the majority of the Southern Hemisphere astrometric and geodetic VLBI sessions operated through the International VLBI Service for Geodesy and Astrometry (IVS). The IVS is an international collaboration of organisations which operate VLBI components in support of geodetic and astrometric research and operational activities and to integrate VLBI into a global Earth observing system.