What’s Next for Astronomy: Telescopes in the South

New Scientist
Stories from New Scientist.
Oct. 7 2012 7:06 AM

Democratize Astronomy Now!

Why every country in Africa should have a research telescope.

The SALT (Southern African Largest Telescope).
The SALT (Southern African Largest Telescope) in South Africa

Photo by Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images.

Hakeem Oluseyi is an astronomer at the Florida Institute of Technology. He is the founding president of the African Astronomical Society, technical executive officer of the National Society of Black Physicists, and a 2012 TED Global Fellow.

Liz Else: You've got a plan to democratize astronomy. Can you tell me about it?
Hakeem Olusevi: One way is the One Telescope Project, to be launched next month. We aim to put one research telescope in every country, starting with African and Southern Hemisphere nations. There are 54 African countries but only three with telescopes: South Africa, Egypt, and Namibia. Nigeria, by the way, has produced as many black astronomers as the United States. Elsewhere in Africa, people have tried to popularize astronomy for years, but they are not doing the science.

LE: Is it just lack of cash that is holding astronomy back in these countries?
HO: It is, but two things have changed. First, as we've studied the universe, we've wanted to look deeper so we made telescopes bigger and bigger. As a result, the best telescopes are too sensitive to look at bright objects such as the nearby stars.

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Secondly, there is now an amazing opportunity for small telescopes to discover and characterize new planetary systems, as well as measure the structure of the Milky Way. Astronomers are no longer looking at high-definition pictures but at HD movies, scanning for objects that change and for transient ones. A 4-inch telescope was used to discover the first exoplanet by the transit method, where you watch the brightness vary.

LE: Are these tiny telescopes expensive?
HO: They are a lot cheaper than people think: A 1-meter telescope costs $300,000. Reduce the size by 60 percent, and it falls to just $30,000. I'm working with an exoplanet discovery team for a survey called KELT, Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope, and there are the HATNet and WASP surveys—all small telescopes, capturing the same part of the sky every night. Bring them together and you have a movie. Once a potential discovery is made, though, you must follow up to confirm and characterize it. We're finding exoplanet candidates at such a rate, we need to bump up what we're doing.

LE: Where should we put these telescopes that follow up on initial observations?
HO: There are far fewer telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere compared to the north, yet the southern skies are really dark. Folk have come up with the idea of a global telescope network before, but they think conservatively—they put telescopes in places where they have friends. It's science first, convenience first. I say put the people first.

LE: Why? Surely science should come first?
HO: Why do we do science? What's the value? I have a different answer. A scientific education transforms a person's life. In the case of astronomy, when we put the science first, great science gets done but people get left out. If we put people first, great science will still get done but we will advance knowledge and education locally. We can do good science and change lives. I know this because of what happened to me.

LE: Tell me more about your early life.
HO: My father dropped out of school aged 9. Almost nobody in my community went to college and certainly didn't go into graduate education or into sciences. Through much luck and much hard work, I ended up getting accepted for graduate studies at Stanford University after attending Tougaloo College, a small historically black college in Mississippi.