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17 April 2019 | Story Leonie Bolleurs
Science ambassadors
Friends Tekano Mbonani and Chaka Mofokeng are pursuing graduate degrees in respectively Physics at the University of the Free State (UFS) and Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape. The two got together and decided to reach out to the high school, Leseding Technical Secondary School, where they came from.

It was a full house as more than 120 learners packed the hall at the Leseding Technical Secondary School in the Free State, where two young Astronomy researchers had come home to tell their younger peers about their studies and career prospects across South Africa.

Chaka Mofokeng and Tekano Mbonani are both former learners at the high school. Currently pursuing graduate degrees – for Mbonani in Physics at the University of the Free State (UFS), and for Mofokeng in Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape – the two friends got together and decided to reach out to the high school where they came from.

The event took place in January before schoolwork, tests, and exam preparations are occupying learners’ minds, inviting them to think about the big picture – the future, and how to be part of it. This is timely, because in July last year, the MeerKAT radio telescope was inaugurated in the Karoo. The MeerKAT is the first step to the international SKA telescope project, but it is already one of the best radio telescopes in the world and has placed South Africa firmly on the world map of radio astronomy and engineering.

Building a bridge
“This project enables us to build a bridge between secondary and tertiary institutions. Currently focused on senior secondary students, we aim to promote science through outreach events and activities. Using science and technology-based activities and events, such as stargazing at an observatory or exploring the universe in a planetarium, we want to attract these future secondary graduates. We also provide mentorship, hoping to help them improve their academic performance in matric,” said Mbonani.

For a whole morning, they spoke about their journeys, about science, about the skills that scientists acquire during their studies and all the opportunities such studies open up in an era where the 4th Industrial Revolution is predicted to reduce the number of jobs in many traditional professions. They addressed their peers in both English and Sesotho.

Astronomy in South Africa contributes to critical-skills development. Investing in the MeerKAT, for example, meant that over a thousand bursaries were made available through the SKA South Africa Human Capacity Development programme. Young scientists like Mofokeng and Mbonani have the opportunity to be part of MeerKAT science projects through their studies, using machine learning and other skills that are high in demand in today’s world. This was one of the messages they brought home.

Gaining new skills

“As an Astronomy research student, I have gained skills such as data analysis, mathematical modelling, communication and writing, programming, and teamwork, among others. These are requirements for most companies and institutions. With the unfolding of the 4th Industrial Revolution, such skills sets make young and aspiring scientists the perfect candidates for making the most of future opportunities,” reflected Mofokeng.

Most of the learners said they have never attended a science-outreach event. They were inspired by the young scientists’ stories and nearly half of them said they could see themselves pursuing a career in science. The learners also expressed a strong interest in more events of this kind, as well as mentorship during Grades 11 and 12 from peers at university. They asked about the salaries earned by astronomers, how long the studies take, and where astronomers are working in South Africa.

This initiative, started by two bright young scientists, hopefully marks the beginning of many more events of this kind. Mofokeng and Mbonani are already planning what to do on their next trip home.

News Archive

Space-based information plays vital role in disaster-risk reduction
2017-02-28

Africa is one of the continents most affected by disasters triggered by natural hazards. The result of climate change is a reality that affects every human being, whether it is extreme heat waves, cyclones, or the devastation of drought and floods. Climate change can provoke injuries or fatalities and affects the livelihoods of people in both rural communities and urban areas. It triggers damage and losses in various sectors of development, such as housing, road infrastructure, agriculture, health, education, telecommunications, energy, and affects routine economic processes leading to economic losses.

According to Dr Dumitru Dorin Prunariu, President of the Association of Space Explorers Europe, space programmes have become an important force defining challenges of the 21st century. “Space observation is essential for climate-change monitoring,” he said.

Dr Prunariu was the keynote speaker at a two-day symposium on climate resilience and water that was hosted by the Disaster Management Training and Education Centre for Africa (DiMTEC), at the University of the Free State (UFS). He participated in the Soviet Union’s Intercosmos programme and completed an eight day-mission on board Soyuz 40 and the Salyut 6 space laboratory, where he and fellow cosmonaut Leonid Popov completed scientific experiments in the fields of astrophysics, space radiation, space technology, space medicine, and biology. He is the 103rd human being to have travelled to outer space.

The focus of Dr Prunariu’s lecture was: Space activities in support of climate change mitigation and climate resilience.

Description: Dr Dumitriu Dorin Prunariu Tags: Dr Dumitriu Dorin Prunariu

Dr Dumitru Dorin Prunariu, the 103rd human
being in outer space and President of
the Association of Space Explorers Europe.
Photo: Charl Devenish

Space-based information, an extra eye that can detect a way out during disasters
“For governments to support communities affected by any disaster, precise and up-to-date information on its impacts is essential as a way to respond in a timely and effective way,” said Dr Prunariu.

Space-based information (derived using Earth observation, global navigation satellite systems, and satellite communications) can play a vital role in supporting disaster-risk reduction, response, and recovery efforts, by providing accurate and timely information to decision-makers.

“With space-based information, disaster management teams will be able to take note of recently established roads that may not appear in typical maps produced by National Geographic Institutes, but which could be used as emergency evacuation routes or as roads to deliver humanitarian assistance to those who require it in remote areas."

Space-based tools help decision-makers to improve planning
“Space-based tools and spatial data infrastructure is also crucial for policy planners and decision-makers in increasing the resilience of human settlements. Using geographic data and information collected before the occurrence of major disasters in combination with post-disaster data could yield important ideas for improved urban planning, especially in disaster-prone areas and highly-populated regions.

“In the recovery process, information on impact is used by governments to provide assistance to those affected, to plan the reconstruction process, and to restore the livelihoods of those affected,” said Dr Prunariu.

“Space observation is
essential for climate-
change monitoring.”

The symposium was attended by representatives from Liberia, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, with various international scientists from Europe imparting their expert knowledge on water and global resilience. The presence of these international experts strengthened global networks.

It isn't important in which sea or lake you observe a slick of pollution, or in the forests of which country a fire breaks out, or on which continent a hurricane arises, you are standing guard over the whole of our Earth. - Yuri Artyukhin: Soviet Russian cosmonaut and engineer who made a single flight into space.

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