Star-gazing MeerKAT a friend to the land’s first people
● It was a giant leap for astronomy and our understanding of the universe when the MeerKAT telescope was unveiled in the Northern Cape this week.
But behind the shooting stars of science, the massive project is also benefiting the ancient knowledge systems of indigenous San communities.
MeerKAT is the biggest radio telescope in the world and will ultimately be incorporated into the Square Kilometre Array, which will be up to 100 times more sensitive than any other radio telescope.
It is a major milestone for South Africa, and for San communities it has already had a down-to-earth positive effect. The purchase of farms to host MeerKAT’s 64 dishes reunited the San with long-lost plants that had been consigned to folklore.
“We found some medicinal plants in the area because of the project and we are so happy about that,” said Collin Louw of the South African San Council. Many of the plants grow only in that area, he said.
Under an agreement with the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, the San will benefit in other ways from the SKA and MeerKAT.
“The memorandum of understanding is beneficial to us in that we have the right to the heritage sites, and it is also good for San youth. They can apply to study if they are interested to do so because of the support from this project.
“It is our original place and we want to be part of this big project,” said Louw.
According to SKA stakeholder manager Anton Binneman, “heritage studies and ecology walk-throughs” have been conducted in collaboration with the San council, and a blessing ritual was carried out at the site of the telescopes in remote regions of the
San art projects and youth tours have been planned, a festival is being discussed with Northern Cape Tourism and a documentary is being made about San involvement in the MeerKAT.
To date, according to the Department of Science and Technology, a total of R306-million has flowed through the Northern Cape economy because of the construction of MeerKAT and the earlier KAT-7.
Almost 7 300 job opportunities have been created in the area, and 22 underresourced schools have benefited from human capital development programmes.
Seventy-two students had been enrolled at technical colleges and 15 at universities through bursaries from the observatory. A technical training centre has opened in Carnarvon and two libraries have been built, both with internet facilities.
The other major spin-off is a green one, with the wellbeing of 130 000ha procured for the telescopes now resting with South African National Parks, which, said Binneman, provided “an ideal opportunity to preserve this part of the Karoo as well as providing a space where research can be conducted on this sensitive landscape”.
Any researchers who visit will need to operate without Wi-Fi or smartphones, though. Both are banned because they would ruin the work of the telescopes.
While ownership of the land will remain with the observatory, as will the management of fences, graves and buildings, SANParks will manage the ecology.
All these spin-offs make the SKA and MeerKAT trail-blazers for how astronomy can have bigger benefits.
According to Vanessa McBride, a researcher in the University of Cape Town astronomy department, astronomy “occupies a special place among the efforts to address development challenges because of its unique ability to stimulate thoughts of ‘what is possible’ in the minds of marginalised communities, women and children”.
Writing in the journal Nature, she said it was perhaps the “fusion of the philosophical, cultural and inspirational aspects of astronomy” with the “cutting edge of science and technology” that gave astronomy a “unique advantage” in fostering socioeconomic development.
Astronomy has the unique ability to stimulate thoughts of ‘what is possible’ in the minds of marginalised communities
Researcher in the University of Cape Town astronomy department
In the remote Northern Cape, radio telescopes dot the landscape at the MeerKAT installation, which will eventually be part of the Square Kilometre Array.
Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, Deputy President David Mabuza, and Dr Rob Adam, MD of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, at the official opening of MeerKAT.