Will 2009 be the year of the stars?
South African star scientists are waiting anxiously to see if the general assembly currently meeting at the United Nations in New York declares 2009 as the international year of astronomy.
'2009 for astronomers around the world will be like the 2010 world cup for soccer fans,' predicts Kevin Govender, who has returned to his roots along the Kwazulu-Natal North Coast but who normally shuttles between the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town and the Southern Africa Large Telescope in the Northern Cape raising science awareness.
Govender lobbied representatives of the United Nations in October on the need for an International Year of Astronomy to focus awareness on the starry wonders of the universe and not just the latest shenanigans of Britney Spears and other celebrity pseudo-stars.
The only representative from Africa among the five members of the International Astronomical Union who addressed the UN meeting, Govender says astronomy is particularly important for developing skills and technology in the developing world.
Marion West, the Bulawayo-born astronomer and educator who works at the famous Hartesbeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory in northwest Gauteng, agrees with Govender about the importance of astronomy for Africa.
'My interest was captured when I was seven, when men landed on the moon,' explains West, a resident of Randburg. 'If you can capture that sense of wonder, even very young children such as pre-schoolers can find their interest stimulated.'
Former Maritzburger Byren Archary has left the kingdom of KwaZulu-Natal to manage a diverse basket of interests, including astronomy and palaeoanthropology, for the department of science and technology in Pretoria.
'An International Year of Astronomy is a very cool way to get astronomy out there to people, to make them realise that science is fun,' Archary says. 'It's a brilliant way of promoting the study of the universe and it carries on with southern Africa's ancient traditions of mapping the night sky.'
Sekgobokoane Mahapa is based at the Johannesburg observatory, where he manages science awareness programmes for the Pretoria-based South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA).
Originally from Polokwane in Limpopo, Mahapa hopes that an International Year of Astronomy will spark an interest in ordinary people in all of South Africa's nine provinces and 'make science in the classroom come alive.'
Note to eds re photos, languages and further interviews:
To find out if the United Nations has formally declared 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy, check out www.astronomy2009.org or www.iau.org or www.astronomy2009.org.za. The announcement is expected on Thursday morning.
Photos and animations of various South African astronomy-related projects (without copyright issues) including the Karoo Array Telescope now being built and the proposed Square Kilometre Array telescope are online at http://www.ska.ac.za/media/visuals.shtml
Sekgobokoane Mahapa of SAASTA (South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement) and JOBS (Johannesburg Observatory) is available for radio and other interviews in Northern Sotho, Tshivenda and English. Cellphone 0822005202. Website: http://www.saasta.ac.za/scienceawareness/index.shtml
Byren Archary of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) is available for interviews on 083 604 1219. Website: http://www.dst.gov.za/other/stes/spu/
Marion West, radio astronomer and educator at HartRAO (Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory) is available for pre-recorded radio interviews in Afrikaans or interviews in English. Cellphone 082 350 7686. Website: http://www.hartrao.ac.za/sciware/
Kim de Boer, of the South African team bidding to host the US billion dollar Square Kilometre Array (SKA) series of radio telescopes, also sits on the International Year of Astronomy steering committee with Marion West, Sekgobokoane Mahapa, Kevin Govender, Byren Archary and others. She speaks Afrikaans and English. Cellphone: 083 276 3282. Website: http://www.ska.ac.za/aboutska/index.shtml
Issued by: Kevin Govender (also available for interviews), chairperson of the South African steering committee for the International Year of Astronomy 2009
South African Astronomical Observatory, Cape Town, Western Cape
Tel: 021 460 9350 / 082 487 8466