The Africa Programme
The African VLBI Network (AVN)

The AVN is a network of VLBI-capable radio telescopes on the African continent.

The AVN will help to develop the skills, regulations and institutional capacity needed
in SKA partner countries to optimise African participation in the SKA and enable
participation in SKA pathfinder technology development and science.

The AVN programme will transfer skills and knowledge in African partner countries to build, maintain, operate and use radio telescopes.

It will bring new science opportunities to Africa on a relatively short time scale and
develop radio astronomy science communities in the SKA partner countries.

Background

The AVN project is a partnership between the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), implemented through SARAO and institutions in the SKA Africa partner countries. The SKA AVN partners of South Africa are: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia.

The initial South African funding for the AVN, was provided by the African Renaissance Fund (ARF) within the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO).

Activities have begun in most of the partner countries to establish radio astronomy research communities, to acquire the skills to mine data, to conduct publishable science and to develop core teams with appropriate skills to engage in the engineering, technology development and operations related to radio astronomy instrumentation.

In Ghana, the Ghana Space Science and Technology Institute (GSSTI) is the home of radio astronomy and the custodian of the AVN radio observatory. The GSSTI was established in 2012 as an institute within the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission (GAEC).

Ghana became the first of South Africa’s eight African SKA partner countries to complete the conversion of a redundant communications antenna into a functioning radio telescope.  The telescope was successfully launched by the President of Ghana in Kuntunse, Accra on 24 August 2017.  During the launch, the Ministers and Deputy Ministers representing the nine SKA African partner countries concluded their Fourth Ministerial Meeting with the signing of a memorandum of understanding to collaborate in radio astronomy.

In addition to the 26-metre HartRAO VLBI capable telescope, that already exists in South Africa, the Ghanaian telescope will be well placed to fill the gap between Europe and Africa for VLBI with the European VLBI Network (EVN). The EVN was formed in 1980 by five of the major radio astronomy institutes in Europe and now consists of 14 partner institutes.

Programmes to establish astronomy related research infrastructure in other partner countries are being developed through an Africa Program Strategy, which includes partners such as the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC) in South Africa, as well as partners in the United Kingdom through the Newton Fund.

One new exciting project within the Africa Programme is the colocation program, which will see radio astronomy infrastructure being colocated with satellite ground stations, ultimately providing a revenue stream and sustainability to support radio astronomy operations in the various African countries.

Designed to do important science

A vital part of the effort towards building SKA on the African Continent over the next decade is the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) Network (AVN). The recent annual SKA African Partner Countries Ministerial Meeting held in Pretoria, provided political and strategic leadership to African SKA partner countries on the AVN, SKA and astronomy programmes and initiatives.

The Africa Programme

The vision of the Africa programme is the establishment of African science and technology networks and skills towards sustainability, and growth of science and technology capacity in the SKA Africa Partner Countries.

The programme strategy is based around three main  pillars:

Human Capital Development

  • Training Partnerships
  • Bursary Programmes
  • Internships and Graduate Programmes
  • Communications and Science Engagement
  • Engineering and Technical Skills Programmes

Research and Technology infrastructure

  • The African VLBI Network (AVN)
  • Big Data Africa Programmes
  • Collaborative Instruments
  • Training instruments

Funding, Governance and Partnerships

  • The Africa Colocation Programme
  • Policy development
  • Partnership development

The objectives of the Africa programme are as follows:

  • Implementation of the funding and revenue models to ensure long term site and programme sustainability in the African Partner Countries
  • Provide support to the successful implementation of the AVN programme in the African Partner Countries
  • Support initiatives and programmes to further establish human capital in the African Partner Countries
  • Implementation of colocated ground stations in the African Partner Countries
  • Provide support to collaborative programmes to deploy research infrastructure across the African Partner Countries

Progress highlights

SARAO will be completing a second engineering phase of implementation on the Ghanaian telescope at Kuntunse this year, and the pilot of the colocation programme was commissioned on the Kuntunse site late in 2021. The ground station is operational through industry partnerships and is contributing to the sustainability and operations of the radio astronomy observatory.

Human capital development initiatives are underway through the SARAO bursary programme and through partnerships. A number of students from the partner countries have benefited from this programme and many of them have returned home to initiate radio astronomy programmes at their home universities.

The Development in Africa through Radio Astronomy (DARA) programme which aims to support development in the African Continent by growing robust science and research communities specifically in the countries involved in the SKA and AVN projects.  It provides high tech skills training in radio astronomy, targeting students from these African countries, thereby assisting in developing a knowledge-based economy in Africa. The programme is jointly funded by South Africa and the United Kingdom (through the Newton Fund).  DARA will be performing a final cycle of training, of representatives of all the African Partner Countries, at the Ghana Radio Astronomy Observatory (GRAO) due for completion in March 2022 .

Activities towards the establishment of infrastructure for the AVN site at BIUST in Botswana is underway. Currently the focus is on the construction of the road, the trenches, and the laying of fibre and power cables to the AVN Antenna site. In this regard SARAO will be supporting the effort with expert advice from the Electrical, Electronic and Civil groups.

The AVN training network is in development whereby a two‐dish interferometer is to provide a small scale AVN instrument to universities in partner countries to build capacity in radio astronomy. The instrument is capable of performing single dish science and interferometry and is useful for both teaching and outreach purposes.

Based on the pilot which was installed in Botswana where both technological and weather challenges were faced on the original dishes, there was a need to come up with new, improved and rugged 3 metre dishes.

The interferometer will be funded by DSI, through SARAO in partnership with the APCs, universities and DARA, the funding will cover single dish science training and basic science, interferometry training, and a training network across all 9 partner countries.

The AVN is funded almost exclusively by the DIRCO African Renaissance Fund (ARF).

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