Africa’s First Mission to the Moon Announced

Africa is home to 7 out of 10 of the world’s fastest-growing economies. It’s population is also the “youngest” in the world, with 50% of the population being 19 years old or younger. And amongst these young people are scores of innovators and entrepreneurs who are looking to bring homegrown innovation to their continent and share it with the outside world.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the #Africa2Moon Mission, a crowdfunded campaign that aims to send a lander or orbiter to the Moon in the coming years.

Spearheaded by the Foundation for Space Development – a non-profit organization headquartered in Capetown, South Africa – the goal of this project is to fund the development of a robotic craft that will either land on or establish orbit around the Moon. Once there, it will transmit video images back to Earth, and then distribute them via the internet into classrooms all across Africa.

In so doing, the project’s founders and participants hope to help the current generation of Africans realize their own potential. Or, as it says on their website: “The #Africa2Moon Mission will inspire the youth of Africa to believe that ‘We Can Reach for the Moon’ by really reaching for the moon!”

Through their crowdfunding and a social media campaign (Twitter hashtag #Africa2Moon) they hope to raise a minimum of $150,000 for Phase I, which will consist of developing the mission concept and associated feasibility study. This mission concept will be developed collaboratively by experts assembled from African universities and industries, as well as international space experts, all under the leadership of the Mission Administrator – Professor Martinez.

The ZACube was one of several cubesats launched with the help of the South African Space Council. Credit: SA Space Council
The ZACube-1 was one of several cubesats launched under the direction of the South African Space Council. Here, an artist’s rendering of the cubesat pays homage to Nelson Mandela. Credit: SA Space Council

Martinez is a veteran when it comes to space affairs. In addition to being the convener for the space studies program at the University of Cape Town, he is also the Chairman of the South African Council for Space Affairs (the national regulatory body for space activities in South Africa). He is joined by Jonathan Weltman, the Project Administrator, who is both an aeronautical engineer and the current CEO of the Foundation for Space Development.

Phase I is planned to run from Jan to Nov 2015 and will be the starting point for Phase II of #Africa2Moon, which will be a detailed mission design. At this point, the #Africa2Moon mission planners and engineering team will determine precisely what will be needed to see it through to completion and to reach the Moon.

Beyond inspiring young minds, the program also aims to promote education in the four major fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (aka STEM). Towards this end, they have pledged to commit 25% of all the funds they raise towards STEM education through a series of #Africa2Moon workshops for educators and students. In addition, numerous public engagement activities will be mounted in partnership with other groups committed to STEM education, science awareness, and outreach.

Africa is so often thought of as a land in turmoil – a place that is perennially plagued by ethnic violence, dictators, disease, drought, and famine. This popular misconception belies very positive facts about the growing economy of world’s second-largest and second-most populous continent.

That being said, all those working on the #Africa2Moon project hope it will enable future generations of Africans to bridge the humanitarian and economic divide and end Africa’s financial dependence on the rest of the world. It is also hoped that the mission will provide a platform for one or more scientific experiments, contribute to humankind’s knowledge of the moon, and form part of Africa’s contribution to global space exploration activities.

The project’s current list of supporters include the SpaceLab at the University of Cape Town, The South African Space Association, Women in Aerospace Africa, The Cape Town Science Centre, Space Commercial Services Group, Space Advisory Company, and the Space Engineering Academy. They have also launched a seed-funding campaign drive through its partnership with the UN Foundation’s #GivingTuesday initiative.

For more information, go to the Foundation’s website, or check out the mission’s Indiegogo or CauseVox page.

Further Reading: Foundation for Space Development

Book Review: African Cosmos

In 1986, Halley’s Comet captivated a teenager living in a small South African town. Curious about what his nation does in astronomy, he scoured books at the local library and asked questions of his teachers.

It was, however, a tough time to learn about it. Under apartheid, African science was seen as “nothing of merit” until the Westerners colonized the continent two centuries ago.

This tale, told in African Cosmos: Stellar Arts, portrays part of the difficulty of reporting on African science. Turn back to  when Egyptians built the pyramids, and you can understand that astronomy goes back thousands of years on the continent. Yet, Africa is under-represented in discussions about popular astronomy. Language, scattered cultures, and distance from the Western world are all barriers.

Creating this volume must have been daunting for Christine Mullen Kreamer and her collaborators, who gathered 20 essays about African astronomy.

But you can see for yourself, as this book is available for free on iPad, and you can download it here.

Africa is a large continent with humans living anywhere from crowded cities to sparse grassland. There are at least 3,000 ethnic groups on that landmass, according to Baylor University, with many of these cultures having separate views in astronomical culture and history.

It’s hard to gather all that information into a single book, but the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art does its best.

The book opens with lengthy explanations of the Egyptian and Babylonian contributions to astronomy. The Babylonians, for example, observed the strange backwards motion of Mars when our planet “catches up” in our smaller orbit to Mars’ larger one. The Egyptians used the sky to develop a 12-month calendar to track important feasts and the time for harvests.

Retrograde motion of Mars. Image credit: NASA
Retrograde motion of Mars. Image credit: NASA

This information is readily accessible elsewhere, but the art makes it stand out. Flip the pages, and you’ll gaze at period art, maps and even astronomical tables that were on display at the museum for a 2012 exhibition.

Perhaps the most fascinating historical chapter is Cosmic Africa, which traces the development of a film of the same title. Anne Rogers and her film team did field research in seven countries to narrow down which tribes to focus on. Eventually, they settled on the Ju/’hoansi in Namibia, the Dogon in Mali and (through archaeology) the area of Nabta Playa in Egypt.

There aren’t many explanations of these peoples in the historical record, so it’s neat to see how their culture is shaped by the stars and nebulas they see. Adding to the interest, the team deliberately visited the Ju/’hoansi during a partial solar eclipse to learn how the tribe reacts to more rare astronomical events.

You’ll see a lot of tribes in this large volume, and will also get hints of the latest art and science surrounding African astronomy. The most current astronomical information is sparse, perhaps out of recognition that the information would go out of date very quickly. It might have been interesting nevertheless to include more information about the Square Kilometer Array, the world’s largest telescope, that is under development in both Africa and Australia.

For more information on the book, check out the online exhibition from the Smithsonian.

Blue Marble 2012: The Arctic Edition

This latest portrait of Earth from NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite puts the icy Arctic in the center, showing the ice and clouds that cover our planet’s northern pole. The image you see here was created from data acquired during fifteen orbits of Earth.

In January of this year Suomi NPP images of Earth were used to create an amazing “Blue Marble” image that spread like wildfire across the internet, becoming one of the latest “definitive” images of our planet. Subsequent images have been released by the team at Goddard Space Flight Center, each revealing a different perspective of Earth.

See a full-sized version of the image above here.

NASA launched the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (or NPP) on October 28, 2011 from Vandenberg Air Force Base. On Jan. 24, NPP was renamed Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership, or Suomi NPP, in honor of the late Verner E. Suomi. It’s the first satellite designed to collect data to improve short-term weather forecasts and increase understanding of long-term climate change.

Suomi NPP orbits the Earth about 14 times each day and observes nearly the entire surface of the planet.

Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Suomi NPP

 

ISS Soars Over Stormy Africa


Here’s a quick but lovely little gem: a time-lapse video taken from the ISS as it passed above central Africa, Madagascar and the southern Indian Ocean on December 29, 2011. The nighttime flyover shows numerous lightning storms and the thin band of our atmosphere, with a layer of airglow above, set against a stunning backdrop of the Milky Way and a barely-visible Comet Lovejoy, just two weeks after its close encounter with the Sun.

This video was made from photos taken by Expedition 30 astronauts. The photos were compiled at Johnson Space Center and uploaded to The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth, an excellent database of… well, of astronauts’ photos of Earth.

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The site’s description of this particular video states:

This video was taken by the crew of Expedition 30 on board the International Space Station. The sequence of shots was taken December 29, 2011 from 20:55:05 to 21:14:09 GMT, on a pass from over central Africa, near southeast Niger, to the South Indian Ocean, southeast of Madagascar. The complete pass is over southern Africa to the ocean, focusing on the lightning flashes from local storms and the Milky Way rising over the horizon. The Milky Way can be spotted as a hazy band of white light at the beginning of the video. The pass continues southeast toward the Mozambique Channel and Madagascar. The Lovejoy Comet can be seen very faintly near the Milky Way. The pass ends as the sun is rising over the dark ocean.

There are lots more time-lapse videos on the Gateway as well, updated periodically. Check them out here.

Video courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.