Using Ghana’s 32m radio telescope to promote astronomy

As mentioned earlier, radio astronomy is a subject little known to the Ghanaian public. This makes the transfer of information to the public very difficult. To fill this gap, scientists from GRAO, GSSTI and volunteers from PRAGSAC get involved with various schools, universities, teachers’ associations and clubs to train them in astronomy. Sometimes schools visit the observatory as part of their educational and industrial excursions. At other times, astronomy teams also visit some schools as part of GRAO’s outreach efforts to raise awareness. Workshops (like DARA and WAISSYA) and conferences (like Dish Conversion) covering general topics in astronomy and instrumentation are also organized. These are some of the strategies we adopt to bring radio astronomy to the public. In this section, we highlight some of these outreach strategies and also discuss the future goals of GRAO.

Visits to the observatory

Discoveries about the cosmos are exciting for children. It is often said that “astronomy is the gateway to science and technology”6. This rings true because when children hear about all the amazing discoveries about the solar system and newly discovered galaxies, they become highly motivated to delve into science fields during their education. Therefore, visits to the observatory to learn about radio astronomy is an awareness plan encouraged by the GRAO team.

The type of target audience we have determines how the outreach is communicated, with groups of high schools and universities that have taught different concepts to elementary school children. For example, for these young children, radio astronomy images are not as attractive as optical images. Therefore, we try to pursue different exciting procedures and content to convey fundamental concepts and engage our audience by connecting with their daily experience and pre-existing knowledge. Groups of high school and university students normally organize these visits to the radio telescope site as part of their engineering and science or general physics classes. Since the audience has a good level of basic knowledge, we are able to show them how we get data on celestial objects. Equations and technical terms are also explained, which gives these students a certain level of understanding regarding the operations and usefulness of radio telescopes and astronomy. Ongoing research at the observatory such as that involving pulsars, methanol masers, machine learning and high performance computing applications are also briefly explained to participants.

After the presentation, the students take an interactive tour around the installation, as shown in Fig. 3. At this point, the students are taken to the radio telescope and are shown the different components and their respective functions, in particular the main course, sub-reflector, alidade structure, mirrors, beam waveguide, beam platforms. elevation and azimuth, motors, shocks, tie-down pin, tracks and clamps, receiver, feed horn, antenna steering control system and back-end computer systems. A physical description of the 32m beam waveguide radio telescope with mirror configuration is presented in Ref. seven using a computer aided and finite element drawing approach. It is an educational tour that allows students to appreciate the science of all these parts and spend time learning more. In the case of schoolchildren visiting the site, specific pedagogical skills are necessary in order to be able to impart knowledge to them. At the observatory, we combine both videos and pictures in the presentations to get the kids excited. In addition, to ensure that children understand certain parts of the instrument, we involve them in making a model map of a radio telescope using paper and glue.

Fig. 3: Antenna tower.

Snapshots of students and facilitators visiting the Ghana Radio Astronomy Observatory in Kutunse.

Visits to schools

While the students are visiting the observatory, we also visit schools to educate them about astronomy. Researchers from the observatory go to graduate schools to give lectures on current projects and also to inform students about the opportunities available in the field of astronomy. The institute, as a way to reach the audience of basic schools, started a project with the aim of working through school tours and school clubs to give students practical information on astronomy and show them the importance and benefits of GRAO in Kutunse. In fact, the PRAGSAC group focuses on visiting basic schools – helping in the development of learning materials as well as the formation of astronomy clubs.

Workshops and conferences

The organization of training programs and conferences is a further step in reaching our audiences. The GSSTI and GRAO have organized a number of workshops and conferences over the years. The initiative is mainly through the collaboration of the Leverhulme-Royal Society Africa Awards in the United Kingdom and the Newton Fund, which supports the DARA project. Training is organized to use the telescope as a tool for teaching astronomy in Ghana. In addition, the meal processing workshop held in 2019 and mentioned above was the first of its kind in Africa. The objective of this workshop was to engage stakeholders and experts from the public and private sectors to broaden awareness and share knowledge in radio astronomy for sustainable development. The workshop welcomed participants from Africa, Latin America, Europe and Asia.

In 2017, the third episode of the WAISSYA workshop was organized to develop interest in astronomy among students and teachers in Ghana and West Africa. During this summer school, the participants were divided into two discussion groups, undergraduate and postgraduate, where each group had both lectures and practical work. The PRAGSAC team also organized a number of workshops for elementary school teachers to update them on astronomy and new ways of teaching children. In addition, the DARA program welcomes a dozen qualified students in the field of physics and other related fields per year and gives them basic training courses in radio astronomy: astrophysics, technical training in the use of the radio telescope for observations, reduction and analysis of data. This training is delivered by radio astronomers experts from the UK, other parts of Europe, India, South Africa, Japan and Ghana. As part of the training, DARA participants also use an optical telescope for nighttime observation (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Observation with an optical telescope.
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DARA students use the optical telescope to observe sources visible in the sky.

Future targets and dissemination channels

In order to reach a large number of people in the country, the outreach team will use social media platforms to grab the attention of parents and philanthropists as well. We will also speak at conferences on science education. GRAO is also exploring funding avenues to build a mobile or fixed planetarium, produce documentaries and flyers to reach a wider audience.

Efforts are being made to improve gender diversity in astronomy in Ghana and GRAO. GRAO has a workforce of eight, of which 50% are women. To encourage more girls in the field of astronomy, female staff mainly facilitate outreach programs. Citing another example, for the DARA 2021/2022 training at GRAO, all female applicants were selected, resulting in six men and six women. Diversity has improved significantly in recent years and the outlook is even brighter.


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