20 years ago, South Africa had 40 qualified astronomers, all white. How space science has opened up and developed skills since then

South African astronomy began an important journey two decades ago, when an initiative to attract and train future scientists in this field welcomed its first group of students under the National Astrophysics and Space Sciences Programme.

During this period world-class facilities have been established, the most notable of which are the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and the MeerKAT radio telescope, precursor to the international Square Kilometer Array. They join the South African Astronomical Observatory and the Hartebeesthoek Radio Observatory that already existed.

The National Astrophysics and Space Sciences Program has played a vital role in ensuring that these facilities were not operated simply for the benefit of international partners. It has also brought people with crucial data analysis skills to the country’s growing high-tech workforce.

As astronomers who are part of this trip (organizers, contributors and beneficiaries), we take advantage of the twentieth anniversary date to reflect on the impact of the program and its importance for the country.

The history

South Africa’s astronomical history, spanning more than 200 years, took a leap forward in 2000 with cabinet approval for the construction of the Large Southern African Telescope.

Beyond its scientific impact, the idea was to attract and nurture young talent, addressing the shortage in the scientific and engineering fields in South Africa.

Large white saucer-shaped structures in a dry landscape.

MeerKAT. South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO)

At that time, there were only about 40 astronomers with PhDs in the country. They were all white. This was a result of the racially biased education system during the apartheid era.

In 2001, astronomers began preparing for SALT and future projects. The Square Kilometer Array (SKA) emerged as an opportunity to host a large international radio telescope that could, among other things, investigate the beginnings of the Universe. Unfortunately, the shortage of South African astronomers posed a threat to the success of the two projects and to Africa’s participation.

Read more: How visionary scientist Bernie Fanaroff put African astronomy on the map

Developing a pipeline

Becoming a professional astronomer requires a doctorate in astronomy, physics, or a related subject. It takes about 10 years to qualify after completing high school. At the time, less than 1% of black school leavers qualified to study for a degree in physics or astronomy.

It became clear that universities needed to start cooperating for the landscape to change. The country’s small astronomical community was spread across eight universities and two national facilities.

The decision was made to pool resources to establish the National Astrophysics and Space Sciences Program. In this way, university professors and professionals from national observatories could contribute to teaching, while students could choose from a wide range of research projects.

This collaboration, including the organization that became the South African National Space Agency, focused on guiding students through honors and master’s degrees. It emphasized cooperation over institutional interests and targeted young scientists, especially those from previously disadvantaged communities.

The main objectives were clear:

  • attract post-BS students

  • recruit from other African countries

  • attracting school leavers to physics degree programs

  • make participation in the program a selling point for all participating universities.

Scholarships that met basic needs were crucial to attracting intelligent students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Funding from private foundations, particularly the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Canon Collins Trust, was in addition to very basic grants from the National Research Foundation.

Today, the government’s Department of Science and Innovation is the main funder.

The subsidies are adequate, rather than generous. However, students have built successful careers through the program, transforming astronomy and space science in South Africa and beyond.

Pfesesani van Zyl, a participant in the programme, said:

The trip to SALT was a truly transformative experience for me… As a child growing up in a small town, the idea of ​​pursuing a career in astronomy seemed like an unattainable dream, especially as a woman of color… However, that visit shattered those limitations. beliefs.

As former recipient Roger Deane, now a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, put it, the program was instrumental in

Recorded audio

As of mid-2023, the National Astrophysics and Space Sciences Program had produced 439 honors graduates and 215 master’s degrees in astrophysics and space sciences. A further 27 honors students and 21 master’s students will graduate shortly, with a similar number of students completing their degrees in 2024.

A 2023 survey of graduates of the program had 230 respondents, including 53 graduates from 19 other African countries. The largest number came from Uganda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia and Sudan. Many have returned home.

Former participant Miriam Nyamai said:

Collaborating with international researchers through the program allowed me to conduct world-class research, attend international conferences, and give talks about my work.


The impact of the program’s graduates extends far beyond academia. Many have embarked on successful careers in various sectors, including industry, education and government.

Graduates have participated in exciting astronomical discoveries. These include producing the first images of black holes with the Event Horizon Telescope, finding some of the most distant galaxies yet known, and using SALT to investigate the remains of some very massive binary stars and unusual active black holes at great distances.

The work of many people has been recognized by national and international bodies and graduates of the program hold key teaching and research positions at South African universities. More than 30 work at the national astronomy facilities and the national space agency, while some hold prestigious positions in other parts of the world. South Africa now has more than 200 qualified astronomers, not all of them from the National Astrophysics and Space Sciences Programme.

However, it remains a challenge to fill vacant astronomer positions in South Africa. Many factors contribute to this, including funding, opportunities outside of academia, and a lack of clear career paths. The National Astrophysics and Space Sciences Program can only be part of the solution to these complex systemic problems.

Future directions

NASSP students visit the SAAO 1 m telescope.  SAAONASSP students visit the SAAO 1 m telescope.  SAAO

NASSP students visit the SAAO 1 m telescope. SAAO

The program has evolved since its creation. Students now have to navigate large volumes of complex data of different types and from various sources. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are essential. Students need to know what these tools can and cannot do while pushing the boundaries of our understanding. This is a challenge for both students and their mentors.

The main obstacle lies now, as it did 20 years ago, in helping university staff to collaborate between institutions in such a way that their work is recognized and rewarded. This requires senior administrators to understand that inter-university collaborations are an investment in their own institutions, as well as in the advancement of South African science.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the National Astrophysics and Space Sciences Programme, a two-day symposium was organized in January 2024 at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent, nonprofit news organization bringing you trusted data and analysis to help you understand our complex world. It was written by: Patricia Ann Whitelock, South African Astronomical Observatory; Daniel Cunnama, South African Astronomical Observatoryand Rosalind Skelton, National Research Foundation

Read more:

Patricia Ann Whitelock receives research funding from the National Research Foundation and the University of Cape Town.

Daniel Cunnama receives funding from the National Research Foundation. He works for the South African Astronomical Observatory, a business unit of the National Research Foundation.

Rosalind Skelton receives funding from the National Research Foundation. She works for the South African Astronomical Observatory, a business unit of the National Research Foundation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *