Global astronomy gathering to take place in Cape Town

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 08 Jul 2024
The International Astronomical Union General Assembly will for the first time be hosted on African soil.
The International Astronomical Union General Assembly will for the first time be hosted on African soil.

As joint host of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope project, SA will stage this year’s 32nd International Astronomical Union (IAU) General Assembly in Cape Town.

This will mark the first time a conference for the international astronomy community takes place on the African continent, says the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI).

The hybrid event, hosted by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and supported by the DSI, is scheduled to take place from 6 to 15 August.

According to the DSI, the gathering is expected to bring together over 2 000 international astronomers to address key topics in contemporary astronomy and assess the latest scientific progress in several specialised areas.

Taking place every three years, the IAU General Assembly aims to advance the astronomical sciences through international collaboration.

This year’s event – led by the African Astronomical Society – will celebrate the continent’s astronomical heritage and commitment to advancing the field, reveals the department.

It will include over 2 000 presentations scheduled across more than 300 sessions. In addition, it will feature six symposia and 12 multi-session focus meetings.

“Alongside international scientific impact, this meeting will have a societal impact that goes beyond national barriers in a continent-wide celebration of astronomy – Africa Astro Month. Learners, scientists, students and members of the public will be brought together for knowledge exchange and inspiration,” says the DSI.

South Africa has, over the years, made inroads in astronomy development and astronomy-related activities, heralding large science projects like the SKA and the MeerKAT radio telescope.

The SKA will be the largest radio telescope ever built and will produce science that changes our understanding of the universe.

MeerKAT, originally the Karoo Array Telescope, is a radio telescope inaugurated in 2018, consisting of 64 radio dishes that are 13.5m in diameter and spread over an area of 8km in the Northern Cape. It is the most sensitive telescope of its kind in the world and is a precursor to the SKA radio telescope, to be built in SA and Australia.

Earlier this year, the MeerKAT telescope helped a group of international astronomers to discover 49 new galaxies, in less than three hours.

The observations were made possible by the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy, a partnership of three South African universities: University of Cape Town, University of the Western Cape and University of Pretoria.

The SKA precursor telescope has made several ground-breaking discoveries over the years. In December 2021, an international team of astronomers utilised the radio telescope to discover a mysterious chain of hydrogen gas clouds the size of a massive galaxy.

In June 2021, the telescope produced a striking image showing a combination of cosmic features never before seen, revealing unexpected details of the inner workings of enormous radio galaxies.

In April 2020, an international team of astronomers uncovered unusual features in the radio galaxy ESO 137-006 using MeerKAT data.

The DSI says during the IAU General Assembly, there will be limited opportunities for media to visit key astronomy sites, including the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and Southern African Large Telescope in Sutherland, Northern Cape, and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), MeerKAT and SKA mid-site in Carnarvon, Northern Cape.

SAAO and SARAO are entities of NRF, and are the key agencies involved in the country’s astronomy-related activities, including the SKA radio telescope.