Space for All: Bringing Astronomy to Remote Mountain Villages in Morocco

The night sky is a great leveler, something that people from all walks of life have been able to look upon and draw inspiration from. Unfortunately, the ability to observe the planets and stars and study the mysteries of the Universe is still not open to everyone. When it comes to astronomy, there is still a problem of access, which mirrors disparities in development, education, and health outcomes worldwide.

This disparity is persistent not only in developed and developing nations but between urban and rural communities as well. In southern Morocco, this disparity is felt by public schools in the remote villages of the Atlas Mountains. But thanks to the Asif Astronomy Club and its founder – Ph.D. student El-Mehdi Essaidi – children in these schools are getting the chance to use a professional astronomical telescope to observe the stars and planets for the first time.

The Asif Astronomy Club is a scientific community initiative that began as part of the “Telescopes for All” campaign mounted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 2020. This effort was one of many legacy actions arising from the IAU’s 100th Anniversary mounted in collaboration with the Office for Astronomy Outreach (OAO), the Stars Shine for Everyone (SSVI) “Stars Shines for All” project, and the University of Leiden’s Universe Awareness program.

El-Mehdi presenting an astronomy workshop in ait bounouh. Credit: Asif Astronomy Club, El Mehdi E

As the IAU states on its website, the program “seeks to broaden the horizons of children, parents, and educators alike, to spark an interest in science, and to promote equal opportunities for pursuing a career in astronomy.” The program is conducted under the supervision of the Moroccan National Outreach Committee (NOC) to disseminate Astronomy to the General Public, representing Morocco to the IAU.

As one of seventeen underserved communities selected by the campaign, the Asif n Ait Bounouh Association for Culture and Awareness (AABACA) in southern Morocco received a telescope donated by science equipment manufacturer BRESSER. The Asif Astronomy Club, led by AABACA member El-Mehdi Essaidi, has provided astronomy workshops with this astronomical telescope to school districts in southern Morocco since 2020. As El-Mehdi told Universe Today via email:

“[The] Asif Astronomy Club is a scientific club affiliated with the Asif n Ait Bounouh Association for Culture and Awareness. It was established after the association won a telescope from the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in an international competition for astronomy partnerships.

“One of the goals of this club is to work on simplifying astronomy for children and involving them in introductory workshops and lectures to develop their scientific skills – especially in the regions of Ait Bounouh and Tafraoute in southern Morocco. It was created to become the first official club in those areas affiliated with the association, and also to bring children closer to the culture of astronomy and facilitate partnerships with other associations in the Tafraoute district.”

In 2019, El-Mehdi was a summer student at the European Organization for Nuclear Research‘s (CERN) Nuclear Physics Laboratory in Geneva. After winning the telescope from the IAU, he launched the Asif Astronomy Club to share his love of astronomy with children living in southern Morocco’s isolated areas, which he does through a series of educational workshops. The Club’s latest workshop (titled “ITRI WASIF 4“) took place on April 02nd in Ammelne, a remote town in the Small Atlas mountain chain at the southernmost tip of Morocco.

As Essaidi indicated, the main objectives of this workshop are:

  • Identify scientific and methodological approaches related to astronomy
  • Get to know the Solar System to which we belong and the planets in it
  • Learn about the telescope and its role in analyzing astronomical objects om a logical and material way

The workshops are divided into two parts: a theory and a practice segment. The first part consists of a theoretical presentation about the Solar System, its planets, its most important characteristics, and the position of the Earth in it. The students will then perform activities where they list the planets in order and present about them, followed by a Q&A session. The second segment consists of the students using binoculars and the IAU-awarded telescope in the schoolyard. As Essaid explained:

“The students used the telescope to look at the Moon and Sun in the yard of the institution. Using this advanced technological method allows the students to recognize the Moon and Sun by looking at them directly with the astronomical telescope after getting to know about them theoretically from the presentation of the workshop.”

As part of their workshop, children use an IAU-awarded telescope to observe the Moon and Sun in their schoolyard. Credit: AABACA/SSVI/IAU/Asif Astronomy Club, El-Medhi E.

In addition to Tafraout, the Telescopes for All initiative has led to community scientific initiatives at public schools in the provinces of Tata and Tiznit in southern Morocco, where the number of students trained exceeded 150 students. Moad Radgui is a community activist from the Kedourt area in the Afla Aghir community, located at the extreme southern tip of the Small Atlas chain. As he shared during a recent interview with Al Jazeera Net:

“These workshops provide an opportunity for children who suffer from a lack of non-school activities in remote areas, and provide them with opportunities to open up to scientific fields outside the school curriculum, and to understand the horizons of other sciences, to search for more information that would support and highlight their talents.”

Despite the lack of funding for education and infrastructure in these areas, the Asif Astronomy Club and AABACA have created partnerships with local associations, educational institutions, and art festivals. While the Club is not associated with any international astronomy and education initiatives, they hope to establish this shortly. As El-Medhi indicated, these partnerships will allow children in Morocco to share their experiences with children abroad and establish joint actions.

“One of our plans is to establish a partnership with the ‘Tifawin Festival’ in the Tafraout region, which promotes the amazing local culture, to make astronomy a part of this festival and share it with children,” he said. “Indeed, we would like to have a lot more simple astronomical equipment for children, and why not an astronomical observatory in the Tafraoute region?”

Students observe the Sun and Moon using the IAU telescope in their schoolyard. Credit: AABACA/SSVI/IAU/Asif Astronomy Club, El-Medhi E.

Education and outreach initiatives like these, which allow for partnerships between international organizations and community-based efforts, are helping to make astronomy and space more accessible. Along with the growth of the commercial space industry and the emergence of new space agencies, it is clear the future of space exploration will be characterized by cooperation between government, industry, and nations worldwide.

All around the world, efforts on behalf of governments, industry, and non-profit organizations are leveraging modern technology to bring astronomy education to underserved communities. By inspiring young people to pursue careers in the field, these efforts are helping to foster the next generation of researchers, astrophysicists, and astronauts.

Further Reading: Asif Astronomy Club, Al-Jazeera Net