Episode 30: Pretty Planetary Nebulae

with Kelebogile Bonokwane

This week we’re joined by Kelebogile Bonokwane who is a National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP) Master’s student at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

Kelebogile talks with us about her MSc project on planetary nebulae. She is investigating whether binary stars sit at the heart of these magnificent structures and are responsible for their unusual shapes.

Her work utilises the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) as well as NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). TESS is an all-sky survey mission designed to discover thousands of exoplanets around nearby bright stars. Kelebogile is using this data to study the central stars of planetary nebulae.

The “Starfish Nebula” Henize 2-47, a planetary nebula in Carina

Kelebogile was recently awarded the SAAO-SALT prize scholarship. She plans to do her PhD on X-ray binaries, investigating the relationship between X-ray and radio emission in order to study the accretion process and relativistic jet production.

This week’s guest

Feature Image

Planetary Nebulae He 2-47, NGC 5315, IC 4593, NGC 5307

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Related Links

NASSP is a multi-institutional postgraduate initiative funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) through the NRF. The aim of NASSP is to train graduates in astronomy, astrophysics and space science in order to contribute to national programmes. Learn more about NASSP here.

SALT: www.salt.ac.za

TESS: https://www.nasa.gov/tess-transiting-exoplanet-survey-satellite/


Social media by Sumari Hattingh.


Jacinta: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah with Dr. Jacinta Delhaize

Dan: [00:00:08] and Dr. Daniel Cunnama. Each episode, we’ll be giving you a behind the scenes look at world-class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.

Jacinta: [00:00:16] Let us introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.

Dan: [00:00:23] Sit back and relax as we take you on a safari through the skies

Jacinta: [00:00:36] Hello and welcome to episode 30!

Dan: [00:00:40] Yay! Happy…Birthday? Yeah, 30th episode. Can’t really call it a birthday.

Jacinta: [00:00:49] Season 3 Episode 30.

Oh, that’s nice.

Dan: [00:00:52] Sure.

Jacinta: [00:00:53] Okay. 30. Well, we’re both in our thirties.

Dan: [00:00:55] Yes. Hubble’s 30 years old. We’re talking about Hubble! Well just a little bit. We’re talking about planetary nebula. Hubble takes nice photos.

Jacinta: [00:01:04] So I guess it was launched back in 1990 then. Yeah. Do you remember that year, Dan?

Dan: [00:01:09] Do you remember that year? Now I’m feeling old. It’s my birthday next week, happy birthday to me! Well, actually it will have been my birthday and I’ll be 36.

Jacinta: [00:01:23] I don’t remember 1990.

Dan: [00:01:25] I shouldn’t be telling people my age. Right, back to the episode.

Jacinta: [00:01:31] Before we get into the episode, what have you been up to this week, Dan?

Dan: [00:01:34] I put in a proposal for another planetarium film!

Jacinta: [00:01:37] Did you?

Dan: [00:01:39] I did. I put a funding proposal in for another planetarium film. And this time inspired by episode 28, a couple of weeks ago. The proposal for this one is African star lore. Finished. 24 minute film on African star lore. Multicultural, multilingual.

It’s going to be huge.

Jacinta: [00:01:58] I can’t wait!

Dan: [00:02:00] Yeah. Let’s hope they give me the money. Money is hard to come by. Right? What have you been up to?

Jacinta: [00:02:05] I’ve been attending the 2020 SARAO Bursary Conference. And SARAO is the South African Radio Astronomical Observatory. This happens every year and you’ve probably heard several of our episodes in the past where we’ve interviewed other people who are attending those.

So this year, of course, it’s virtual, it’s online. Just as the SAAO recent conference was online and it’s actually working pretty well. This year we have all pre-recorded quick 90 second talks, which get played in succession. And then there’s a question and answer session where people can ask us questions live and we are online to answer them.

And then we meet in this thing called Gather Town, which I hadn’t heard of before. But you’re kind of like in a video game and you’ve got your little avatar of yourself and you walk around the spaces of this online conference venue and you meet other people there and you can talk to each other. Because it turns your videos on and your sound on you talk to each other and it’s working surprisingly well, I really feel like I’m walking around and seeing these people who are on opposite sides of the world at the moment.

Dan: [00:03:10] That is weird.

Jacinta: [00:03:11] Yeah. So really well done to the organizers.

Dan: [00:03:13] Well I’m glad it’s working out.

Jacinta: [00:03:14] Yeah, it’s cool.

Obviously it doesn’t beat real life, but this is what we have to do at the moment.

So it’s working nicely.

Dan: [00:03:22] 90 second talks though!

Jacinta: [00:03:24] Yeah. That’s very quick, but at least everyone’s getting a shot to talk. So this is mainly for the post-graduate students and the post-docs who are being supported by SARAO and we meet every year and we’re hearing all about the amazing discoveries and detections that MeerKAT has been making this year.

So I think this was maybe the first time ever that we’ve had a particular session, which was this morning, dedicated just to new MeerKAT results. So, yeah, it’s the first year that they’re all just churning out and so many people have made so many different discoveries and it’s really exciting.

Dan: [00:04:00] And every is going to need an extra session.

Jacinta: [00:04:02] Hopefully. Yeah. That’s what we’re after.

Okay, so let’s get back onto this episode’s topic.

Dan: [00:04:09] So today we will be discussing?

Jacinta: [00:04:11] Today we’re going to be discussing planetary nebula, which are the endpoint of stars that are not particularly massive. So stars that are similar to the sun or maybe around two solar masses, meaning two times the mass of the sun. These stars, they don’t die in these big dramatic supernova explosions, which we often talk about. Rather, they kind of fade away.

So they start burning different elements other than hydrogen. And then they release their outer layers, which just kind of float off into space. And they are kind of lit up by the central remaining star or white dwarf, I suppose. And they create some beautiful colors that we’ve seen in pictures, particularly from Hubble.

Dan: [00:04:56] Yeah. So there’s these sort of cloudy shapes around the central star, which are in numerous different colors once they’ve been tinted. I think the shapes are incredible. They’re definitely some of the most eye catching images that come out of Hubble.

Jacinta: [00:05:13] So who are we speaking with today about these planetary nebulae?

Dan: [00:05:15] So today we are joined by an MSc student. She’s just finishing her MSc project at the University of Cape Town. And her name is Kelebogile Bonokwane. And she is from Kimberly in the Northern Cape originally, where our telescopes are. Not in Kimberley itself, but in the Northern Cape. And she’ll be talking to us about her project and some of the telescopes she’s been working on.

Jacinta: [00:05:37] Just a couple of things to mention.

First, sometimes she calls planetary nebula, PN for short. We also have a little discussion about spectrometry and photometry. So Dan, what’s the difference between those two?

Dan: [00:05:50] Photometry is basically collecting little photons of light and measuring how bright they are. And spectrometry is collecting little photons of light and measuring their frequency or wavelength.

So you can split them up into their constituent frequencies and look at the colours and frequencies, and you can tell completely different things other than just the brightness.

Jacinta: [00:06:14] You can hear some wind in the background there.

Dan: [00:06:16] It’s Cape Town. It’s summer.

Jacinta: [00:06:18] It’s very windy in Cape Town in summer.

Right. So that’s the difference between spectrometry and photometry and I think that’s all we need to know.

So let’s hear from Kelebogile.

Dan: [00:06:36] Today we’re joined by Kelebogile Bonokwane. Hello Kelebogile. Welcome!

Kelebogile: [00:06:41] Hi, thanks for having me.

Jacinta: [00:06:42] Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah. It’s a pleasure to have you.

Kelebogile: [00:06:45] I’m glad to be here.

Jacinta: [00:06:46] Can you tell us first just a little bit about yourself? Who you are, where you’re from and what your role is?

Kelebogile: [00:06:52] I am Kelebogile Virginia Stephanie Bonokwane. My mother gave me many long names.

So I am from Kimberly in the Northern Cape. I grew up in sort of a Kgosi township of Galeshewe. And right now I’m a bit of a student in transit between Masters and PhD in astrophysics. Specifically stellar astrophysics.

Dan: [00:07:20] Where are you based?

Kelebogile: [00:07:21] I am at the UCT and SAAO.

Dan: [00:07:24] So split between the South African Astronomical Observatory here with me, and at the University of Cape Town.

Jacinta: [00:07:30] With me!

Kelebogile: [00:07:32] Yes.

Dan: [00:07:33] Maybe you could just tell us a little bit about how did you get into astronomy? Where did you study your undergrad?

Jacinta: [00:07:38] What got you interested in the first place?

Kelebogile: [00:07:40] So I remember very particularly, I think I was in grade four and we were learning about the telescope and Galileo Galilei and I was like wow this is interesting!

And I sort of had this astronomy thing in my head ever since. Although I went to a technical school. So we did electrical, civil and mechanical technologies. I was like okay, maybe I might become an engineer. But I decided to just pursue astronomy instead. That’s what I found interesting. I was like, I’m going to be a scientist.

And so that’s when I came to Cape Town from Kimberley. I’ve been at UCT since undergrad. And I did physics as well as astrophysics majors in undergrad. And I decided to just stick to and pursue astronomy. It’s what I found interesting. It’s what I liked. And I wanted to be at a point later in my career where I was doing research and I was doing something that I really liked and enjoyed.

And so I am here now sort of in my post-grad continuing with astronomy.

Jacinta: [00:08:49] That’s

awesome. So what do you study? What’s your research been about so far?

Kelebogile: [00:08:53] So it’s been planetary nebulae since honours. Since my honours project. And I sort of continued with that into my Master’s project.

Dan: [00:09:04] Can you just explain for the listeners, what is a planetary nebula?

Because it’s not what you think it is, right?

Kelebogile: [00:09:10] Similar to people, stars evolve over a lifetime. They’re born and they die. And so the planetary nebulae, they are where a star evolves towards the end of its life time. And what happens is inside stars you have this constant, continuous nuclear reactions happening.

And you have these elements formed. Hydrogen, helium, the first few elements on the periodic table. So what then happens when a star becomes a planetary nebula, is that there’s been so much gravity on the star itself, that the temperature rises enough to sort of drive off the surface material off the star.

It does this through very strong winds. And so you have this expanded material of guests driven off the surface of the star and then this hard core at the center, sort of heats up this material. And that’s what you see as this glowing nebula. So that whole system is what you have as a planetary nebula. The core at the centre and this glowing nebula around it.

Dan: [00:10:20] And they have nothing to do with planets.

Kelebogile: [00:10:24] No.

Jacinta: [00:10:25] Do you know why it was named that way?

Kelebogile: [00:10:27] I’m not sure.

Dan: [00:10:28] I do. Actually I do. I mean, it was the earliest astronomers, maybe 200 years ago. I think it might’ve been William Herschel even. They were looking at these objects or seeing them through small telescopes and they looked more planet like than star like.

Because they had this extra sort of shape and colour. They’re beautiful objects, planetary nebula. We’ll post some pictures on the website. But Hubble has taken some incredible photos of planetary nebula. So I think that was why they were called planetary nebula at first.

Jacinta: [00:11:05] So it was thought that they were from planets?

Dan: [00:11:07] It was thought that they were planets. Cloudy planets or something going around a round planet. But now we know that, as you said, they’re the end point of a star’s life and have nothing to do with planets. In fact, if there was a planet there, then that probably wouldn’t end very well for


Jacinta: [00:11:23] So what do they actually look like, Kelebogile? Maybe you can tell us a bit more about the weird and wonderful shapes that they form.

Kelebogile: [00:11:31] Most planetary nebula are just spherical in structure or shape. But others have these bipolar lobes and jets, or these disks around the system. That’s what the ones look like that I’ve been studying. The sort of more interesting looking ones. The ones that have these interesting shapes that morphologies.

Jacinta: [00:11:57] And do you know why they have such strange shapes and morphologies?

Kelebogile: [00:12:01] Well, that’s sort of what we are trying to figure out. In the literature, it’s been speculated that it’s due to the stellar rotation and also others say that the magnetic field of the object can influence it. But those two scenarios don’t really support it, or wouldn’t be able to sustain that kind of shaping.

And so what’s been seen more recently is that there have been binary stars sort of discovered in these kinds of planetary nebulae. And so that’s what the basis of my research was. Trying to find binary central stars in these interesting PN  (Planetary nebulae) .

Dan: [00:12:45] Two stars within the planetary nebula itself? Or is the planetary nebula around the one star and the other star is further off?

Kelebogile: [00:12:53] Well, what you can have is the common envelope of the two stars. So most stars would reside inside of the common envelope and then the envelope can expand into the nebula and then sort of influence the shape like that. So that’s kind of what most simulations have modelled – how binaries can influence the shape of the planetary nebula.

Jacinta: [00:13:18] Okay. So there’s two stars in the very center and then the planetary nebula is very big and around both of them.

Kelebogile: [00:13:24] Yes.

Jacinta: [00:13:25] Okay.

Dan: [00:13:25] Oh right!

Jacinta: [00:13:26] Have you been looking into this problem with any particular planetary nebula?

Kelebogile: [00:13:31] Yes for my Master’s research, I looked at three objects. Hen3-1333,  Hen2-113 and Hen2-47. And Hen2-47 is the classically-known Starfish nebula. It looks like a starfish.

I looked at those because they were very interesting looking. They were all sort of multipolar in shape. So you had that interesting morphology, but also they had these extra features that added to how interesting they were and how they screamed that they must be binary central stars.

And that’s why I chose those objects. Those are the three that I looked at recently.

Dan: [00:14:15] And how are you observing them? Which telescopes are you using?

Kelebogile: [00:14:18] I used the South African Large Telescope SALT. And I also used the TESS telescope – the [Transiting] Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which is a space-based telescope. And the reason why I did that is because I wanted to do a very quantitative study.

So I got to spectroscopic data and also photometric data, to cover all bases.

Jacinta: [00:14:42] What kind of light does TESS collect? Is it optical light?

Kelebogile: [00:14:45] Yes.

Dan: [00:14:46] And it’s just collecting photometric data. So just brightnesses of stars, right? But it does that very regularly.

Kelebogile: [00:14:52] Yes, very.

Dan: [00:14:53] How regularly does it do it?

Kelebogile: [00:14:55] The data I had, it was taken at a 30 minute cadence.

And it does this continuously for about 27 and a half days.

Dan: [00:15:04] That’s amazing.

Jacinta: [00:15:05] So this satellite telescope is looking at the exoplanet every 30 minutes. Is that right?

Dan: [00:15:11] It’s looking at a field of the sky actually. So it’s looking at quite a large field of sky and it looks at it for 27 days consecutively taking an image every 30 minutes. So you’re looking at thousands of stars.

You didn’t use TESS specifically, you didn’t ask TESS to point for you. You’re just using TESS data, which they’ve released to you?

Jacinta: [00:15:31] From the archive?

Kelebogile: [00:15:32] Yes.

Jacinta: [00:15:33] And what did you find? What did you see?

Kelebogile: [00:15:35] Unfortunately, we had a non-detection in terms of finding the binary, but what we were able to do from our results is constrain the orbital period parameter.

And this is assuming that the features that we see, the shapes that we see, is because of a binary system.

Jacinta: [00:15:55] You were looking for a binary. You were trying to figure out whether these weird shapes were caused by binary stars at the center. You mentioned an orbital parameter. So you’re trying to find the amount of time it takes for the star to rotate around the other star?

Kelebogile: [00:16:09] Yes. And if you prove that does exist…

Jacinta: [00:16:13] then you’ve found a binary, right?

Kelebogile: [00:16:14] Yes.

Dan: [00:16:15] With the TESS data, you’re looking at the brightness of a star, or in this case the star at the center of a planetary nebula. And you’re looking for a change in its brightness, which will indicate that there’s another star there. Do these two stars have to be eclipsing?

I mean, does it have to be an eclipsing binary where the one passes behind the other in order for you to detect a dip in light?

Kelebogile: [00:16:37] It doesn’t necessarily have to be eclipsing, but you can tell from the sort of variation in the light curve that you make from this photometric data, if there is a signal detectable from that.

Jacinta: [00:16:54] Okay. So there could be some pattern in the light curve, even if it’s not eclipsing. Do you also look at the velocities of the stars? Like whether they’re actually wobbling?

Kelebogile: [00:17:03] Yes, so that was done with the spectroscopic data from SALT. I made radial velocity curves, and I had the light curves also to work from.

Jacinta: [00:17:15] Okay. So you’re looking at the variation in the light and whether the star is moving to figure out whether that’s a binary or not. Yes.

Dan: [00:17:22] So with SALT you’ve got a very high resolution spectrograph, a very high resolution spectrum. And from those lines, by looking at it at different times, presumably also fairly regularly, you can see  whether the star is moving towards or away from us. Correct?

Kelebogile: [00:17:38] Yes.

Dan: [00:17:39] And how regularly we were you doing that with SALT? How much data did you take from SALT?

Kelebogile: [00:17:44] It wasn’t an even sample, but the spectra that we had was taken over about 300 days. And so for the different objects, there was about 60, 58 and 35 amounts of observations. They were taken about 10 days between each observation. A little incoherent. So it was a bit of an uneven sample.

Dan: [00:18:11] So it was hard to find a sort of an easy period or pattern?

Kelebogile: [00:18:15] Yes.

Jacinta: [00:18:16] Were there any, maybe, slight hints of a binary?

Kelebogile: [00:18:20] There was for the Starfish nebula. There was this period that sort of stood out. It was 14 and a half days. What we do when we find a signal is that we try to phase up the light curve using that signal.

Jacinta: [00:18:36] Okay. So of the three planetary nebula you looked at to find binaries you’ve got “No. No. Maybe.” Is that right?

Kelebogile: [00:18:45] yes.

Dan: [00:18:46] Is the plan to carry on? Have you got plans to collect more data and try and clarify some of these things?

Kelebogile: [00:18:54] Well, because our results were saying no short periods, which is less than 10 days, we are assuming that they have very long orbital periods. And so we just need a little more data, or a lot more data! Because we have about three years of observations and we are assuming that the orbital period should be at least around thousands of days. So we need a lot more observations and monitoring with SALT to pin down if there is something.

Jacinta: [00:19:30] Okay. So your results don’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a binary. The obit of the stars around each other could be on a much longer time scale than you’ve already had a chance to look at.

Kelebogile: [00:19:40] Yes.

Dan: [00:19:40] And that wouldn’t be that long. If it’s a thousand days, that’s two and a half years or something.

That’s a slightly bigger orbit than the Earth, but not massive when you’re looking at two different stars. How big are these planetary nebula on the scale of the Solar System?

Kelebogile: [00:19:57] Very big. I guess if the Sun were to go into its planetary nebula phase, it might absorb Jupiter, I think.

Jacinta: [00:20:06] Oh, cool.

Kelebogile: [00:20:07] Yeah.

Dan: [00:20:09] That’s pretty big!

Jacinta: [00:20:10] Yeah!

Kelebogile: [00:20:12] And then there won’t be Earth by then.

Jacinta: [00:20:14] No. What would happen to the Earth?

Dan: [00:20:18] Vaporized.

Kelebogile: [00:20:19] Yeah.

Dan: [00:20:21] Vaporized.

Jacinta: [00:20:22] Yeah. I guess it would be already eaten up when the star becomes a red giant, right?

Kelebogile: [00:20:27] Yes.

Dan: [00:20:28] Is the sun expected to go into a planetary nebula phase? What are the requirements for a star to go into this phase?

Kelebogile: [00:20:36] Planetary nebulae progenitors, which are the first stages of the star are similar to the Sun. So they have similar masses, which is around two solar masses. So you would expect the Sun to follow the same evolution as a regular planetary nebula. So you would expect it to go into a planetary nebula phase.

Dan: [00:20:59] Yeah. So first it expands into this big red giant, and then that will kind of dissipate into a planetary nebula phase. Oh, that’s not a bad way to go.

Jacinta: [00:21:08] And do you know why they make all of these beautiful colors?

Kelebogile: [00:21:11] So it’s the elements often and then sometimes also the part of the spectrum it’s observed in. But for PN, from what I can tell, it’s mostly the elements.

So you have oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur making the blue, green, and red that you see. And those colors are sort of composites made. And then that’s how you see these different colors or what you would have perceived the PN to look like.

Jacinta: [00:21:44] So, do you think you would see those colors if you looked at it with your eyes or are they sort of false color images meant to represent the emission of different chemicals or elements inside the planetary nebula?

Kelebogile: [00:21:56] It would be because of that. False colors.

Jacinta: [00:21:58] Yeah. We spoke to Jayanne English a few episodes ago and she was actually one of the people at NASA who was making the image composites.

Dan: [00:22:06] And from Hubble too. So she presumably did play with some of the planetary nebula.

Jacinta: [00:22:11] Yeah, maybe even some of these planetary nebula. What are your plans for the future?

Kelebogile: [00:22:15] Well for now, I think I can only tell you about three or four years into the future.

Dan: [00:22:21] Oh, that’s more than I could say.

Kelebogile: [00:22:24] I’m starting my PhD next year, early next year. And that’s sort of going into a bit of a new field in X-ray binaries, working with X-ray and radio data. Which is something very, very new for me. But it’s an exciting challenge, I guess. But it’s still sort of sticking with stellar and binaries. Sort of a theme that I have going on.

Dan: [00:22:49] Where will you be doing that?

Kelebogile: [00:22:50] I will be at the SAAO. Okay, cool.

Jacinta: [00:22:53] Okay. Congratulations!

Okay, great. So I think when we’re nearly at the end now. Do you have any final messages for listeners?

Kelebogile: [00:23:00] Well, if they’re already listening and watching this, they’re already doing something good. But a message for them, I’d say, continue to listen and watch, learn about the science and whatever interests you in the field.

And also just continue to expose yourself to the different people that come here and tell you the paths they’ve taken to get to where they are. It can be something inspiring for you as an individual, regardless of whatever you are doing. And just continue to take care of yourself, stay safe with these times that we are in and be kind.

Jacinta: [00:23:42] That’s fantastic. Is that the advice you’d give yourself if you could go back in time and see little you when you were in grade four and interested in astronomy.

Kelebogile: [00:23:51] Yes.

Jacinta: [00:23:52] Great.

Dan: [00:23:53] Thank you. And thank you for your inspiration.

Kelebogile: [00:23:55] Thank you so much.

Dan: [00:23:56] It’s greatly appreciated.

Jacinta: [00:23:58] Yeah. Thank you very much for joining us and we hope to speak to you again soon.

Kelebogile: [00:24:01] It was nice being here.

Jacinta: [00:24:11] Okay. So interesting to know that these pictures of the planetary nebula, which have fascinated me since I was also very young, are false color images.

Dan: [00:24:19] Yeah. So we’ve discussed this previously, as you mentioned, episode 17 if you want to go back and listen, and we chat to somebody who does exactly that. So it’s more than just making up some false colors to make it look pretty. It’s not just sticking it into Photoshop and making it look nice. They actually try and hold onto the science. So adjust the image according to its frequencies and then use the different colors to represent those frequencies. So you actually, to use quite a big word, ‘elucidate’.

You shed light on what exactly is going on.

Jacinta: [00:24:52] Yeah.

Dan: [00:24:53] Yeah, a great chat to Kelebogile too. It’s really cool to hear stories of people who grew up in South Africa, getting interested in astronomy at a young age, and then having the opportunity to study it and become an astronomer. It’s really special and wonderful to see.

Jacinta: [00:25:10] Yeah, definitely.

Cool. All right. Well, it was really awesome to talk to Kelebogile. 

Dan: [00:25:15] Yeah, and we’ll let you get back to your Bursary Conference. Some exciting science I’m sure coming out and hopefully we can earmark some people to interview, including yourself. And l keep trying to get you to talk about your new paper.

Jacinta: [00:25:28] It’s not accepted yet, but as soon as it is…

Dan: [00:25:30] okay. Soon, soon, soon.

Jacinta: [00:25:32] Yeah. I’ll be the guest on one of the episodes.

Dan: [00:25:36] And do let us know if there’s anything else exciting coming out of the conference.

Jacinta: [00:25:40] Oh, there is. I’ve already written a whole list of people that we need to interview on what their topics were.

Dan: [00:25:44] Ah excellent.

Jacinta: [00:25:45] And I’ll let you get back to your funding proposals.

Dan: [00:25:47] Yeah. I’m just holding thumbs at this point,

Jacinta: [00:25:52] which for those not in South Africa means crossing fingers. That’s the very South African phrase.

Dan: [00:25:57] Oh right, yeah! I alway forget that that’s a South African thing.

Jacinta: [00:26:00] Okay. Well, that’s it for today. So thanks very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of The Cosmic Savannah. You can visit our website, thecosmicsavannah.com where we will have the transcript, links and other stuff related to today’s episode. You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @cosmicsavannah. That’s Savannah spelled S A V A N N A H.

Dan: [00:26:22] Special thanks today to Kelebogile Bonokwane for speaking with us.

Jacinta: [00:26:26] Thanks to our social media manager Sumari Hattingh and all the Cosmic Savannah volunteers.

Dan: [00:26:31] Also to Mark Allnut for the music production, Janus Brink and Michal Lyzcek for photography and Lana Ceraj for graphic design.

Jacinta: [00:26:38] We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation, the South African Astronomical Observatory and the University of Cape Town Astronomy Department to help keep the podcast running.

Dan: [00:26:48] You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts.

And if you’d like to help us out, please rate and review us and recommend us to a friend.

Jacinta: [00:26:56] We’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah. [Music ends.]

Uh, and we also have a little discussion about photometry and spectromedy…Oh. [Laughs]

Dan: [00:27:14] Do you want to leave that in there?

Jacinta: [00:27:17] No, that can be for the bloopers.


Dan: [00:27:20] And that’s it for today. Thanks very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again for the next step of the next ep… why is that one first?

Jacinta: [00:27:26] Cause that’s always first.

Dan: [00:27:27] Is it? It feels like it should be last.

Jacinta: [00:27:29] No, we have it again at the end. “We’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.” Don’t question the method now! We’re three seasons in! [Laughing]

Dan: [00:27:40] I was like, this doesn’t make sense. It seems so final!

Jacinta: [00:27:41] It does, doesn’t it?

Dan: [00:27:43] What’s TikTok? Should we join TikTok?

Jacinta: [00:27:45] I don’t know Dan.

Dan: [00:27:47] I don’t know. I’m 36 now.

Jacinta: [00:27:49] Yeah, I’m not going to say how old I am, but I’m a bit younger than you.

Dan: [00:27:53] Not far. [Laughing]


Episode 27: A Bamboo Planetarium

with Susan Murabana Owen and Chu Owen

We have an absolutely packed episode for you to enjoy this week!

Firstly, congratulations to the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) on celebrating its 200th anniversary on the 20th of October 2020! In honour of this prestigious occasion, the observatory was given national heritage site status.

A symposium was held (virtually), with talks presenting a wide range of topics from: the history of the observatory and astronomy in South Africa, the cultural aspects and socioeconomic impacts of astronomy, and all the exciting science being done.

Dan, and collaborator Sally Macfarlane (University of Cape Town), recently premiered a new full-length planetarium show focusing on South African astronomy. Together, they incorporate aspects of indigenous knowledge, the history of astronomy in the country, and shots of the various locations – all in a full dome experience. Watch the teaser or follow the links below.

Teaser of the planetarium show Rising Star: A South African Astronomy Journey.

Our featured guests this week are Susan Murabana Owen and Chu Owen. Two astronomers, working in Kenya, passionate about bringing astronomy to everyone, not just those who can afford it. They founded The Travelling Telescope, a social enterprise, in 2014 where Susan serves as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) (she also holds positions as the President of the African Planetarium Society, and serves on the board of the International Planetarium Society), and Chu serves as the Chief Technical Director (CTD) (bringing with a wealth of astrophotography experience).

The Travelling Telescope provides educational tools to aid school teachers, such as a mobile planetarium, a permanent planetarium in Nairobi made of bamboo, a robotics program (partnered with the Airbus Foundation), and virtual reality headsets. Through events hosted, such as the Nairobi star party, they hope to foster sustainable interaction with local communities, and provide a platform for these communities to tell their stories of the African sky.

This week’s guests

Feature Image

The Nairobi Planetarium built out of bamboo. Credit: The Travelling Telescope.

Related Links


Show notes by Timothy Roelf. Transcript by Sambatriniaina Rahjohnson. Social media by Sumari Hattingh.


Dan: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah with Dr. Daniel Cunnama.

Jacinta: [00:00:08] And Dr. Jacinta Delhaize. Each episode, we’ll be giving you a behind the scenes look at world-class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.

Dan: [00:00:16] Let us introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.

Jacinta: [00:00:24] Sit back and relax as we take you on a safari through the skies.


Jacinta: [00:00:35] Welcome to episode 27, everyone. Today, we’ll be hearing from Susan Murabana Owen and Chu Owen who run The Travelling Telescope program in Kenya. But first Dan, it has been quite a week!

Dan: [00:00:49] The busiest of weeks.

Jacinta: [00:00:51] I’m not sure how you’re still standing.

Dan: [00:00:53] Well, I’m not, I’m sitting at the moment and that’s been my state for the last few days.

Jacinta: [00:00:59] Alright. Well, before we get into that, this is the first episode we’ve recorded since the announcement of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics,

Dan: [00:01:07] which once again, went to

Jacinta: [00:01:08] Astronomy!!!

Dan: [00:01:10] Obviously, it’s the best science.

Jacinta: [00:01:16] We’ll deny it, if anyone asks. Yeah. So this year, the Nobel Prize in Physics went to Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for “Black holes”.

So Roger Penrose was awarded the prize for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity. So basically some very hardcore maths and physics, astrophysics. Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez was awarded the prize for discovering the supermassive black hole at the centre of our own galaxy, the Milky `way.

And that’s called Sagittarius A*.

Dan: [00:01:54] Yeah, that’s pretty cool. I think that the relativity, obviously from Einstein back in 1915 and black holes were the kind of the singularity, which were predicted and now, I mean, we know about black holes, we know all about them. We know that they’re real and that they abide by the law of relativity.

Jacinta: [00:02:16] Yeah, and I guess Genzel discovered the supermassive black hole by tracking the motion of other stars around the centre of the Milky way. And they could see, it was all putting a point where there was no light coming from it. It was discovered that was a black hole.

And I would assume Dan that a lot of the reason why this award is happening this year has something to do with the EHT image of a supermassive black hole that was taken last year, which I guess is really quite direct evidence of black holes.

Dan: [00:02:46] Yeah. I mean I think that black holes are definitely one of the more exciting branches of physics. There’s a lot happening at the moment and there’s a lot to be discovered.

I’m not sure if it was related to the EHT or not, but that observation that you’re talking about, it’s like the coolest gift ever. Because it’s like, 20 or 30 years now of observations of these stars going around the black hole. We’ll definitely stick that on the website, but you know, you can see these little black stars going “whoop, whoop” around this object, which isn’t there.

Jacinta: [00:03:17] Well, we actually plan on doing an episode on black holes related to the Nobel prizes in the future. So I guess we’ll leave the gift for that episode.

Dan: [00:03:24] Okay. We’ll keep you waiting.

Jacinta: [00:03:27] But anyway, the prizes were awarded a couple of weeks ago. And in the last week we’ve also been incredibly busy.

Primarily you Dan, with the 200th anniversary celebrations of the SAAO, the South African Astronomical Observatory.

Dan: [00:03:41] Yeah. So Tuesday, 20th October saw the 200 year anniversary and we had the site unveiled officially as a national heritage site, which is a very, very big deal, which was very stressful.

I had some issues with the live stream, but we don’t talk about those. And then we had a symposium which ran for the remainder of the week from Tuesday to through to Friday, which was really, really cool. I think we had all sorts of talks and, you know, we’ll send you the link where you can go watch all of the talks that were online.

It was a virtual symposium, so everything has been recorded and made available online. And we had talks ranging from obviously the history of the observatory, the history of astronomy in South Africa, socio economic impacts of astronomy, the cultural aspects of astronomy, and then the science. So current science, exciting science and things to come in the future.

So it was a whole range of all of astronomy in South Africa. The symposium was themed to be on 200 years of astronomy, which I really quite liked because it kind of, beyond covers all sorts of things. We can look beyond 200 years ago, we can look beyond 200 years to the future, and then we can look beyond astronomy too.

So yeah, I think it went really well. We got a lot of positive feedback and a lot of interactions. We had almost 500 people, I think in the end, that’s like very cool. And I mean the virtual symposium thing, obviously we didn’t want to do it that way initially, but it meant that we had people joining from all over the world.

We got high profile speakers from all over the world who otherwise probably wouldn’t have travelled. So it, it really did. Yeah, I think it set the tone for how we can do virtual conferences in the future.

Jacinta: [00:05:26] Yeah. I mean, Dan, honestly, for you and your team, Congratulations! I was absolutely blown away by the, the standard that was set.

I mean the speed of the pivot to virtual conferencing was incredible. And you’ll set up an entire professional TV studio right here at the SAAO. As you know, I was chairing one of the sessions with yourself and then also with another person. And I was expecting it to be in ZOOM, just sitting together in front of a computer, a laptop, looking into the camera on the laptop and talking together.

But no! It was a full ON TV studio. We had a set manager giving us the countdown to when we go to go live, we had headpieces. And what do you call these?

Dan: [00:06:10] The little Madonna Microphone. I think Madonna was the first to do that.

Jacinta: [00:06:16] Like the earpiece where you can hear people like telling you instructions through that, it was super cool and yeah, very, very professionally done.

Very speaking span. And yeah, again, I was also really impressed by the variety of talks. And there was a lot on history, which I wasn’t actually expecting, but I learnt a lot from that. I guess it’s hard to conceptualize really how long 200 years is, and how much the world has changed and how much South Africa has changed in that time. So that was, that was really quite fascinating.

Dan: [00:06:49] And astronomy, I mean, how much astronomy is changing.

Jacinta: [00:06:51] That is just unbelievable how much it’s changed in 200 years! We actually heard from the president of the Royal Astronomical Society in England. She was able to join, as you said, because of the virtual nature of the conference and the Royal Astronomical Society also celebrating their bicentenary this year.

So 200 years of the SAAO here, and 200 years of the society they’re in, in England. And it’s, it’s an enormous history with incredible growth.

Coming back to science, another thing that’s happened in the last week or two. Dan it’s been quite a, quite a busy few weeks. Is that a special astronomy edition of the National Research Foundations, “Science Matters” magazine was published and that was actually edited by you and I, and had a lot of contributions from many research astronomers here in South Africa. And I think that gave a really nice overview of the huge variety of astronomy coming out of South Africa here, which obviously we’re trying to promote through this podcast and to share all that knowledge, but even so, even though we’re quite plugged into that, I was still blown away by the huge variety.

I mean, there’s things like: everything from the larger scales of cosmology simulating the entire universe; studying these things called the baryonic acoustic oscillations, which are basically the largest scales in the entire universe. Down to studying galaxies, galaxy evolution with the MeerKAT telescope, with SALT; down to studying stars that are releasing huge amounts of X-rays; down to even here on the Earth and as you said, the socio-economic impact of astronomy, which was phenomenal. The huge breadth and the range of the whole,

Dan: [00:08:33] Yeah. I mean, we say it over and over again,

Jacinta: [00:08:36] It sounded a bit like a broken record, I guess, but it’s true.

Dan: [00:08:39] But the astronomy in South Africa, we’re quite passionate about it.

Jacinta: [00:08:43] As we can may be hear. So also talking about sharing all of this with the public and the socio-economic impact, there was also this virtual festival of astronomy alongside the symposium.

Dan: [00:08:56] Yes, that was pretty cool too. So, obviously trying to reach the public as much as possible. We wanted to have an astro fest where we could do stargazing and everything, but we couldn’t do that.

So we pivoted to virtual and we had talks from various people. We had the people representing NASA and others, and again, the advantage of being able to get people from all over the world to contribute. So we had various talks, we had some workshops on how to engage in astronomy to communicate astronomy.

We had a nice webinar on science communication, and then we had virtual staff party on the Friday night.

Jacinta: [00:09:31] How did that go? And what was it? how was the music?

Dan: [00:09:35] It was pretty cool. I mean, I don’t know, like I love the DJ. So master KG, who some people may know, he’s very popular at the moment here in South Africa. He’s had one major hit and everyone’s dancing to it, including myself on Friday, but anyway, he kind of started rough and he sort of eased you into a set.

So we had going on the TV and it’s kind of cool, funky music. And then, we interspliced that with some virtual stargazing. So we had a telescope set up, it just an amateur telescope, 16 inch, with a camera attached to it. We slewed it around and pointed at various objects. So, you know, while the music was playing, we had text on the screen as to what you were looking at.

And people got an opportunity to look at some of these things, as you would see them through an outreach telescope, rather than through one of our large telescopes who actually don’t make very good images at all. They are directed at science. They didn’t really doing spectroscopy or something similar. They’re not making these pretty images.

Jacinta: [00:10:35] But sometimes they are

Dan: [00:10:37] Some of them do. Looking at it as you would see it if you went on a stargazing evening or visited us here. So it was pretty cool. I enjoyed it and we got some good feedback. I think people really enjoyed all of those events and it was a nice way of interacting.

Jacinta: [00:10:53] Nice. Hopefully some of our listeners are also able to participate in that, but even if you miss that, there’s still a chance to participate in the celebrations with. There’s a planetarium show I believe.

Dan: [00:11:05] Yeah. So for my sons, I was doing another thing too. So on Monday 19th, we had the premier of a new planetarium show focusing on South African astronomy.

So it’s a project that we’ve been working on for a couple of years now, along with Sally Macfarlane from UCT. And yeah, we’ve recorded a full length. So that’s 24 minute planetarium show, full dome experience. We incorporate some indigenous knowledge, the history of astronomy in the country at the various exciting locations and telescopes.

We’ve got shots from MeerKAT and drone footage from Sutherland, which has just spectacular.

Jacinta: [00:11:41] I haven’t seen it yet, but I can’t wait.

Dan: [00:11:43] It’s the coolest thing flying over Sutherland. And seeing all those telescopes, it’s spectacular. So yeah, I mean, and then we give an introduction to multi wavelength, astronomy, then multi- messenger astronomy, which is a lot of what we’re doing here in South Africa at the moment.

So it went really well. It was well received and it’ll be in a planetarium near you. Hopefully soon.

Jacinta: [00:12:02] Right, so this is called “Rising Star”. And it’s currently in the Iziko planetarium here in Cape town, and you’ve made it free for planetariums all around the world to, to release, right?

Dan: [00:12:12]  Yeah. So it’s freely available. We have distributed it already to Bloemfontein and to the Naval Hill planetarium and the planetarium in Sutherland. There’s over 4,000 planetaria around the world and it’s freely available to all of them.

Jacinta: [00:12:26] Great. So if you run a planetarium and you want the show, get in touch! Well, can we actually play a little snippet of the planetarium show?

Dan: [00:12:34] Yeah, sure. I mean, we can play the voiceover and we do have a trailer, so we’ll post the trailer on the,

Jacinta: [00:12:43] On the website. Alright. So we’re going to play a little bit of the audio now, but for the full visual effects, well, go to Sydney planetarium show, but you can also head to our website for the trailer.

[Trailer Audio]

Trailer: [00:13:11]  Humans have always looked up to the night sky and wondered at the repeating patterns of the celestial bodies. What are they? Where are they from? and what is their connection to us? To answer these questions? We created stories.

A San legend tells the story of the origins of our galaxy, the Milky way. A young woman waits for the hunters to return at the end of the day. As it grows dark, she throws ash from the fire into the night sky.This becomes the Milky Way and guides the Hunter safely home after dark.

Everything we know from the Universe starts from studying the light emitted or reflected by objects in space. By detecting and analysing light from an object in space, astronomers can learn about its distance, motion, temperature, density, and chemical composition.

Initially, astronomers detected only one type of light, visible light. The type we see with our eyes, which is actually a spectrum of wavelengths that make up the colours of the rainbow.

Light travels very fast. The speed of light is about 300,000 kilometres per second. This means that the light from the Sun, which is 150 million kilometres away takes just over eight minutes to get to us on Earth.

So when we look at the sun, we were actually seeing it as it was about eight minutes ago.

We are looking back in time. Most of objects in the Universe are even further away, and light from the most distant galaxies can take billions of years to reach us.

[Trailer ends]

Jacinta: [00:16:10] Cool. I can’t wait to see it. So I haven’t seen the show yet, but I’m very, very excited. Okay, so speaking of planetarium shows and outreach to the public and stargazing. Today, we’re going to be talking to Susan Murabana Owen, and Chu Owen, who run The Travelling Telescope program in Kenya, as we said at the start of the episode.

Chu and Susan kind of do “everything”! They have so many projects going on. They’ve got a program to take a telescope around, to do school visits in Kenya, also astrotourism. They’ve even built an entire planetarium out of bamboo! So I managed to chat with Sue and Owen when they visited Cape Town a little while ago, for the African Astronomical Society meeting, where I believe she was appointed to the role of a, I think it was something to do with planetarium coordinator for the committee. I can’t remember the exact role. But she also has a whole bunch of other roles. She’s the founding president of the African Planetarium Association and the national coordinator of Astronomy Without Borders and Universal Awareness, etc.

So Chu and Susan do a whole range of things.

Dan: [00:17:24] Very, very busy people and very passionate people, which is wonderful. I think that there’s various levels in which you can participate in outreach and science engagement. And it’s just wonderful to hear people like Sue and Chu, who really just get down on the ground, feet on the ground, reaching people and trying on the stars. And it’s fantastic.

Jacinta: [00:17:43] So shall we hear from them?

Dan: [00:17:44] Absolutely!


Jacinta: [00:17:52] With us now is Chu Owen and Susan Murabana Owen. Welcome to the studio, can you just tell us a bit about who you are and where you’re from and what you do?

Susan: [00:18:04] My name is Susan Murabana. I’m from Kenya and I’m the co-founder of The Travelling Telescope.

Chu: [00:18:10] My name is Chu Owen, originally from England. I now also am in Kenya.

Jacinta: [00:18:15] Great, Susan and Chu, you mentioned that you are working on something called The Travelling Telescope. Can you tell us more about what that is?

Susan: [00:18:22] So The Travelling Telescope is a social business as we like to call it. We work with schools, providing education tools to support the teachers and to get the kids excited, but we also work with the tourism sector.

What we do is we charge schools that can afford, international schools and private schools to get our services. We have a big telescope. We have a mobile planetarium. We’re just in the process of setting up permanent planetarium in Nairobi. It’s going to be called the Nairobi planetarium.

And we have other tools, one in partnership with Airbus foundation, which is a robotics program that we take around to schools. So one of the key things we’re very excited about is working with young people, but we also want to engage the wider Kenyan and African audience. Through to I presume Kenya has unpolluted dark skies.

They are really good and I would like to use that to showcase Kenya in Africa, in terms of astronomy.

Chu: [00:19:20] We’ve got to, like Susie said, we’ve got two main sides to what we do, which is the educational side and then the tourism side. But within those there’s other areas as well. So like within the schools, within the international schools, as Susie said, we’d do charge.

And then when we can, we get funding to do schools that don’t necessarily have access to the funding, but we don’t want to miss them out if possible. So we do look for funding to get to the less served schools. And then even within the tourism side, there’s like, you know, more local tourism, like people from Kenya, from Nairobi who wants to, you know, learn more about the sky.

And then of course, international tourists. And that tends to be like the lodges and the more sort of, you know, the higher end things. So within both of those areas, we’ve got different sort of levels, which we try to engage with.

Susan: [00:20:00] Part of the reason we charge is obviously to be sustainable and to help and, you know, provide opportunities for young Kenyan graduates in astronomy or other science fields to work with us and make something from what they are doing. But also really it’s to get the buy-in from the Kenyan or African community.

So one of the things we do is then “Nairobi Star Party”, where we charge a minimal fee for families to come, and journalists and all different people who pay to look through the telescope have to go into the planetarium. And for us, we feel by their, the community is paying, it means the value of what we do and are willing to, you know, use a bit of their money to enjoy.

So having that means that it’s going to be sustainable, not necessarily financially, but also in terms of interest from the community or the people.

Chu: [00:20:53] Obviously our tools are the main focus of what we do, which is the telescope and the planetarium. And then we have this robotics kits and some other hands-on activities, including virtual reality headsets.

But we are like the guides. We are like the safari guides for the astronomy world. So we know the sky pretty well, and we observed in, you know, how objects form and what happens through the evolution of different things in the sky. And so, you know, for example, on a night time thing with the telescope, we have our very powerful laser pointers. While we’re highlighting certain objects and we have microphones, but it’s an interactive thing. So it’s presenter led, but with the astronomy guides.

Susan: [00:21:29] So through what we do, we have obviously received a lot of attention and appreciation, especially locally from where we are. So obviously we’re talking about the fact that you’re trying to do it as a business, but with social impact.

And one of the things you do is obviously try to bring in the local communities that are very connected to the sky. To connect with the sky the traditional stories they have, because this story is quickly getting lost because they’re not asking or telling them. And if you go to a community that has, you know, all this wildlife and has all these two areas and you get the locals to talk about the sky, they feel that they’re part of that project that you’re bringing into the community.

Jacinta: [00:22:13] Gosh, you do so much! I’m almost speechless and not sure what else to ask. That’s just so fantastic. I guess. Why astronomy? Why did you choose astronomy as a platform?

Chu: [00:22:25] So for me, I got into astronomy sort of later. My primary world was the film world. And I got into that through arts and photography and music.

In fact, at school, the sciences were a complete mystery to me and I can’t blame my teachers for that, but it’s like, it just wasn’t appealing to me and I didn’t pay any attention to it in school. So I didn’t pursue that kind of area, but sort of getting more interested in it when I was, you know, in my twenties I suppose. I was like, why did nobody come and sort of share the wonder of science, particularly astronomy with me at school?

Cause that just never happened. Nobody there never had like an engaging thing with about science, but for me, seeing Saturn in a telescope was just mind blowing. And I was like, why had nobody during all of those years of education that I had at school? Why did nobody ever say that there’s this, there’s all these things up there, which are visible to you and even in a small telescope, which you can’t help, but wonder at, and I want to ask more questions about.

Susan: [00:23:23] I think for me, it was also, you remember the young girl us to find the Plough in the sky in school. And I struggled seeing it. And when my classmates went back to school and reported what they had seen. I didn’t see it. And now, you know, having that sky and learning about it and telling people about it, that is such a fulfilment. But also knowing that there could be young boys and girls like me struggling to see the sky and struggling to like science, gives me that drive to do it.

Obviously, knowing that astronomy is an intriguing science, it sparks curiosity. And the fact that we are a dark continent, so why not make use of that beautiful sky and shade to the rest of the world? The other thing that stands out for me in astronomy is the fact that when we look at a satellite image of the Earth, that all borders, we all belong to this planet and trying to use that to get our leaders to speak together.

And everyone just loving our planet and taking care of it is one of the things that makes me very excited about what we do. So I think those are the two things that led to that. And obviously right now, there’s a lot of really cool things happening in the continent in astronomy. And looking back at when I started in outreach in astronomy and now, it’s just an exciting time in Africa to be doing what we’re doing.

And that’s also something that excites me.

Jacinta: [00:24:53] Yeah, absolutely. I really agree with you about how we’re all united under one sky. And that, that is why astronomy can cross all borders and all cultures and all divides because we’re all under the same sky. Now I have to admit that as a professional radio astronomer, I don’t know anything about anything that you can see with your eyes in the sky.

So I have a question. The Plough is that the same as the Big Dipper?

Chu: [00:25:17] Yes.

Jacinta: [00: 25:18] Okay.

Chu: [00: 25:20] It’s got four names, the Big Dipper, the Ursa Major, the Plough and the Great Bear.  Probably others in other languages as well, of course.

Jacinta: [00: 25:29]  So the people who are familiar with the night sky going to laugh at me a little bit with these questions, but I imagine so, so you spend most of your time in Kenya, is that right?

Susan: [00: 25:38] Yeah, we do spend most of our time in Kenya. We have been to Tanzania with The Travelling Telescope a few times. And we really want to travel across the rest of Africa with The Travelling Telescope. I think it’s a beautiful name to talk about exactly what we do and we’ve had a few people across the continent who asked for us to visit. So it’s also the fact that you travel when you travel to different parts of the world and look up in the sky, there’s something unique and different. And with the culture and the people, it just has a way of humbling news. So I think we’d like to, you know, explore the idea of traveling to more countries across Africa, with our model and sharing with them what we have, and also getting to learn about what’s happening.

Jacinta: [00:26:26] I imagine the skies in Kenya must be stunning.

Chu: [00:26:30] Well, one really cool thing about Kenya is that it’s on the equator, which means that you see both hemispheres of the skies as an astronomer.

Jacinta: [00:26:37] Northern and Southern.

Chu: [00:26:39] So you almost see every star in the sky through the year. That’s not true of anywhere, you know, more than 23 degrees North or South of the equator.

So like here, we were looking at the sky last night, I was like, Oh my goodness!, “me, that’s the, that’s the Southern cross really high up in the sky”. And so Susie mentioned earlier, seeing the Great Bear, the Big Dipper who was supposed to be there because her books had told her that it’s a circumpolar constellation.

Of course, she’s looking from the equator. So it’s not, there’s no circumpolar constellation at the equator because the sky rotates around pretty much the horizons. But also Kenya has obviously a lack of development you could argue in some ways, but that has a beneficial effect on the views of the night sky.

So you have very, very large dark sky areas. One of the biggest parks, Safari parks and wildlife parks is Tsavo. And we’re actually in the process of looking to try to get that turned into a dark sky reserve and with the international dark sky association. And hopefully, maybe even more, if we can get one, we could hopefully get another. Also one of the brilliant things about Kenyan skies or being on the equator is that the ecliptic is right above your head.

So you’re looking through the least amount of atmosphere at any of the planets or the moon, or whatever happens to be, you know, transiting along the ecliptic, including the constellation of the Zodiac. So there’s, there’s loads of reasons why specifically where we are is brilliant. Not that other places aren’t, but it’s just, we’re very lucky with our skies plus the dry climate, which generally is, is also really good to see, you know, any objects in the telescope or with your naked eyes.

Susan: [00:28:07] Yeah. And I don’t think many Kenyans actually know that uniqueness of where we are in terms of the sky.

Jacinta: [00:28:17] Yeah, that’s incredible. So if any of our listeners want to come and see one of your shows, see The Travelling Telescope, how can they find you?

Susan: [00:28:25] We are on Twitter, you can check us up on Twitter @TravelTelescope.

We are on Instagram @thetravellingtelescope, Facebook: The Travelling Telescope, and we have our website info at travellingtelescope.co.uk. So please get in touch with us. And we offer star Safaris and we have the big five in the sky, and we have so much to give you a few. If you want to come and see it.

Jacinta: [00:28:53] So I want to come on Safari and see the big five in the sky. Definitely. Just to finish up. Are there any other messages you’d like our listeners to hear about?

Chu: [00:29:03] Yeah, definitely. We mentioned earlier about how the astronauts on the Apollo mission, who were the first ones to see the Earth rising above the surface of the moon that they’re credited with being the first environmentalist.

And we’ve been very lucky to meet some astronauts in the past few years. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space. She’s really cool.

Jacinta: [00:29:23] I am so jealous!

Susan: [00: 29:24] We also met Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian in space. Yeah. And I met Scott Kelly! who went to space for one year. So I was very excited about it, so yes, and they know of what we’re doing.

We’ve had very direct interaction and communication with them,

Chu: [00:29:41] But what I was  going to say is, through the astronauts, your perspective can change because there’s only about 600 of them who have ever seen the Earth from space. And they all say pretty much the ones we’ve met. They say the same thing about how you notice that for a start, there’s no borders from space. We are all one on this planet and we all breathe the same air, you know, the very thin atmosphere, which if you compare the Earth to an onion, then the, the atmosphere is like the skin is that thin. So obviously, you know, what happens in one area will eventually affect other areas, out on the ocean is the same as well.

But strangely through looking up, we’ve we find ourselves looking at our own planet differently. So it kind of gives you new eyes on the Earth, which is nothing you’d expected to be doing, using a telescope.

Susan: [00:30:23] So, one other thing I’d like to say is that obviously we do chase the sky and try to share that with people.

But we have mentioned our planetarium. And there’s a meeting happening in two days to set up an African affiliates for the international planetarium society. These are excellent tools to use, to show the sky and to discuss things like the environment and biodiversity and all these things.

And so we’re very excited that that is happening. And also just very excited to know that there’s a lot of collaboration and support from big organizations like the United nations, environment program to push for the message of climate change. Which is real and to see what scientists are doing, using their data, to get to talk to important decision makers about climate change and how we can change that and protect our planet.

Chu: [00:31:17] But it’s also that through science, it’s really the only way that sustainability can happen. How do we purify water? How do we desalinate ocean? If we’d need to do that for drinking water, how do you get energy? Not using fossil fuels? You know, it’s all science! You looked at solar panels, they were popularized and developed really for the space industry, where there is no access to oil in flying around the Earth.

You need to use this, the power of the sun. So obviously solar panels are a good example of direct effect on Earth. X-ray technology. You know, x-rays were discovered by astronomers as well, and now we all use them when we break up arm or whatever. So yeah, there’s loads of examples where we talk about how science and an interesting science can actually directly have an effect on well-being of humans on Earth.

Susan: [00:32:00] And if there’s any young African listeners, especially the ones who are still in school. If there are any of them out that can take the message home of how important science is in our everyday life and reach out to organization science centres and learn more about science in a fun way.

Chu: [00:32:20] One more thing, our planetarium were making out of bamboo!

Jacinta: [00:32:26] Wait, what?

Chu: [00: 32:28] So, it could be a geodesic dome, which is made of bamboo. When we’ve been in the process of designing this hexagonal hub thing, which is also made of bamboo so that these, anyway, I have to show you pictures of it. But they are in the process of doing that and possibly even making a telescope out of bamboo as well, because bamboo is a wonderful material.

That’s just super quick to grow and a great for the soil. Just sort of put that in.


Jacinta: [00: 32:48] Maybe we can put a picture of it on our website. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for speaking with us today. This has been absolutely fantastic and the best of luck with everything and we’re all supporting you. We’re all behind you.

Chu: [00:33:01] Thank you so much. Yeah, we look forward to you coming up to Kenya or even us coming down to South Africa with our program.

Susan: [00:33:07] Yeah. Thank you very much.

Jacinta: [00:33:08] Yeah. It’s a deal!


Dan: [00:33:10] Awesome. We need to send them rising star.

Jacinta: [00:33:24] Yeah, definitely. Of course!

Dan: [00:33:26] We will post a picture of the planetarium. You know, obviously all the work they’re doing is fantastic and The Travelling Telescope, the planetarium is very exciting and novel. It’s a bamboo frame with a piece of canvas over the top. That’s spectacular.

Jacinta: [00:33:39] Brilliant! Yeah. So they’ve actually, between us chatting and now, they’ve actually finished the planetarium and it’s off and running.

Dan: [00:33:45] Yeah. I mean, it looks brilliant and that sort of, I don’t know, initiative is just incredible.

Jacinta: [00:33:50] Yeah, next level. I really liked their message about, it’s similar to what we heard from Vanessa McBride in episode 26, about us all being under one sky and that there’s no borders if you look down on the earth from space. Like if you look at a map, of the world or a globe, it’s still delineated into countries, but actually that’s not what the world looks like. There aren’t any actual physical borders. And so using astronomy as a message to bring everybody together, also using it as a hook to spark interest in students, in the public, to get buy-in from society and also to use as a perspective and tool for environmental protection.

I mean, these are all of the ways that astronomy can really actually help society because it’s, it seems like an intangible thing, but actually it can have a really real  impact.

Dan: [00:34:41] We’ve spoken a lot about it before. I mean, I think that astronomy has this very, very special role and it’s very, very powerful.

This is just another example of it. It’s a great way to get people some perspective on what’s actually important and

Jacinta: [00:35:00] Exactly. We saw it a lot during the conference last week, the image of the pale blue dot and also the EHT image and how popular they’ve become in the entire world. Like what, 4 billion people or something have seen the EHT image now?

Because it gives us some humility, some modesty, some perspective on ourselves. It also reminded me listening to Susan and Chu about a talk that was given last week by Amidou Sorgho about Astros day. So he’s working with the OAD, the Office of Astronomy for Development, and he was researching a program that I think has been implemented in the Himalayas.

Called Astros days where you have Astro tourism, just like Susan and Chu were talking about. Where people come to admire the pristine night skies of the area. But there were found that there was very little cultural interaction between the visitors and the local people and that this was missing out an entire aspect of the whole thing.

And so, they’ve set up like an astronomy tourist homestays situation called Astro stays, where the visitors come and stay in the homes of the local people. And then there’s an interaction and a cultural exchange, and it seems to enrich the whole process. And perhaps that’d be, that might be something that would be interesting to also apply in Kenya and South Africa.

Dan: [00:36:18] Yeah. And the host also received some training, right? Like in terms of, stargazing, which is like, it’s great! It’s a full experience and you can sort of pass on some real benefits, tangible benefits to the communities, rather than them going to a big hotel or something.

Jacinta: [00:36:37] Right. While the community are involved, it’s there, it’s ownership.

Sue also mentioned incorporating local and traditional stories of the night sky when she’s discussing the sky with her visitors. And we were actually preparing another episode about this based in South Africa for next steps.

Dan: [00:36:58] Yeah. I had a wonderful interview and we will talk about that more next week.

Jacinta: [00:37:01] Yeah. So stay tuned for that one that’s coming up next. I think we’ll end off here today and we’ll leave the rest for the next episode.

Dan: [00:37:08] Thanks very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again. On the next episode of The Cosmic Savannah,

Jacinta: [00:37:14] You can visit our website, thecosmicsavannah.com, where we’ll have the transcript, links and other stuff related to today’s episode.

You can also follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @cosmicsavannah. That’s Savannah, spelled S-A-V-A-N-N-A-H.

Dan: [00:37:30] Special thanks today to Susan Murabana Owen and Chu Owen for speaking with us.

Jacinta: [00:37:34] Thanks to Sumari Hattingh for social media and transcription assistance and Andy Firth for show note preparation. Also to Mark Allnut for music production, Janus Brink and Michal Lyczek for photography and Lana Ceraj for graphic design.

Dan: [00:37:47] We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation, the South African Astronomical Observatory and the University of Cape Town Astronomy Department to help keep the podcast running.

Jacinta: [00:37:58] You can subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you’d like to help us out, please rate and review us and recommend us to a friend.

Dan: [00:38:06] And we’ll speak to you next time on the cosmic Savannah.

[Behind the scene]

Jacinta: [00:38:18] I actually met a couple of astronauts myself, including Buzz Aldrin. Second person on the moon! But, so I had in my head prepared this whole spiel that I was going to say to him when I met him, “I used the telescope that picked up the signals of you walking on the moon and all of this things”, but what came out?

I just saw him, I got so star-struck. Like, I didn’t think that that was a real thing, but it really is! I saw him, I got so star-struck and I just said, “Ummm, I study galaxies” and he was like, okay. But he was very kind and very nice.

Chu: [00:38:58] How appropriate is it that astronomers getting star-struck!?

Episode 26: Beyond 200 years of astronomy in South Africa

with Assoc Prof Vanessa McBride

Welcome to Season 3 of The Cosmic Savannah!

This week we recap our adventures over the break including the conclusion of The Cosmic Savannah podcasting boot camp and the run up to the 200th anniversary celebrations of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO). Dan explains how you can get involved in the big celebrations! (See links below)

We are also joined by Assoc Prof Vanessa McBride, who describes her dizzying array of roles! These include astronomer at the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), Head of Research at the SAAO, and lecturer and research supervisor at the University of Cape Town. Vanessa is also heading the organization of the 2024 International Astronomical Union (IAU) General Assembly – the very first time this will be hosted by the African continent!

Vanessa explains her own research in the field of compact binary stars, reminding us of the wealth of astronomy and astronomical facilities right here in South Africa.

We also discuss the objectives of the OAD, acknowledging South Africa’s difficult past, in striving for an equal and inclusive future for all, in astronomy and beyond.

Featured Guest

Assoc Prof Vanessa McBride

Featured Image

A view from the front of the Main Building at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town. This view stretches back 200 years to 20 October 1820 when the observatory was first used for astronomy.

SAAO all events: saao.ac.za

SAAO 200th Anniversary Symposium: saao200.saao.ac.za

Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD): http://www.astro4dev.org/

African Astronomical Society: https://www.africanastronomicalsociety.org

Zooniverse: https://www.zooniverse.org/


Show notes prepared by Andy Firth. Transcript by Sumari Hattingh.


Dan: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah with Dr. Daniel Cunnama.

Jacinta: [00:00:08] And Dr. Jacinta Delhaize. Each episode, we’ll be giving you a behind the scenes look at world-class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.

Dan: [00:00:16] Let us introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.

Jacinta: [00:00:24] Sit back and relax as we take you on a Safari through the skies.

Dan: [00:00:33] Welcome to what we think is episode 26.

Jacinta: [00:00:36] Season three, episode one.

Dan: [00:00:38] That’s our debate.

Jacinta: [00:00:38] We disagree on how we’re going to number these.

Dan: [00:00:41] So whatever it’s numbered on whatever app you’re using, that’s what the number is.

Jacinta: [00:00:46] And who won. Welcome to season three, everybody!

Dan: [00:00:51] Welcome back. We have had a long break. Some of it Covid induced, some of it business induced on both of our parts. We’ve been lucky not to have Covid.

Jacinta: [00:01:03] Both of us have been very lucky.

Dan: [00:01:04] We hope you have been too.

Jacinta: [00:01:07] Yes, we hope everyone’s safe for our returning listeners. Welcome back. And for our new listeners, a warm welcome to The Cosmic Savannah family. First of all, we would like to start by asking if you like this podcast episode, can you please leave us a review on iTunes and like and subscribe and tell a friend if you can, because that’s really going to help us to spread the word and get new listeners.

Dan: [00:01:35] So we should get started with a sort of brief recap of what we’ve been up to.

Jacinta: [00:01:39] Yeah. Well, I guess why don’t we stop for our new listeners, reminding people who we are? Who are you, Dan?

Dan: [00:01:44] My name is Daniel and I am the science engagement astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory, which is based here in Cape town. And our observing site is up in Sutherland in the Northern Cape about 400 kilometers away. So that’s a dark site at high altitude. My role here at the observatory is science engagement. So promoting our research, promoting our facilities and reaching out to the public and stakeholders and trying to raise awareness of astronomy.

Jacinta: [00:02:14] You’re a reformed research astronomer.

Dan: [00:02:17] Well, there’s still…

Jacinta: [00:02:18] You’re still keeping your finger in the pot – now what’s the expression? Keeping your finger in the pot?

Dan: [00:02:26] Foot in the door? I don’t know.

Jacinta: [00:02:27] Yeah, foot in the door. That’s where I was going.

Dan: [00:02:29] I think that we’ll talk about it a little bit more now, but I’ve been very busy the last couple of years, and haven’t had a chance to do much research, but it’s certainly something that still appeals to me. And, yeah, I’d like to get back into it. Once all this is done. And yourself?

Jacinta: [00:02:47] Great. I am Jacinta.  I’m a research astronomer at the University of Cape town, UCT, and I’m a postdoctoral research fellow and I study galaxies; galaxy evolution – how galaxies have changed over the history of the universe. And I mostly use radio telescopes such as MeerKAT, which is South Africa’s incredibly powerful radio telescope in the Karoo. It’s one of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world and it’s run and organized by the SARAO – the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory. I actually have a SARAO fellowship and I’m from Australia, but I moved to South Africa about two years ago. That’s when we decided to start this podcast. Why did we start this podcast?

Dan: [00:03:33] I asked myself that every day. No, I mean I think we realized pretty quickly that there wasn’t enough promotion of African astronomy. There’s so much going on in this country. We’ll talk about it a bit more with our guests today, but there really is a lot to be proud of – a lot going on. That’s something which we want to share with the South African public and also the rest of the world.

Jacinta: [00:03:58] Yeah, exactly. It’s such a vibrant place to be and there’s…my blanket fort is falling down.

Dan: [00:04:07] So we’re once again doing blanket fort recording because our regular studio does not abide by Covid regulations because it’s probably only about a meter across. We can’t distance ourselves at all in there.

Jacinta: [00:04:24] No, so we’re sitting – socially distance – under blankets at the moment on the floor. Anyway, what was I talking about? Vibrancy of the South African astronomy environment. Yes. Okay. Well, yeah, that’s why I’m here. I think that it’s important that we can make this accessible to everybody, not just scientists and astronomers, but absolutely everybody because it’s super exciting what’s happening here and it’s super important as well – as we’re going to hear today with our guest, Professor Vanessa McBride.

So Vanessa is going to tell us all about the work that she does as the Head of Research for the SAAO and also her role as astronomer for the Office of Astronomy for Development – the OAD – which tries to leverage astronomy in order to help achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals, which was really fascinating to talk to Vanessa about.

Dan: [00:05:19] So before we get into that, maybe we should talk a little bit about what we’ve been up to in the break?

Jacinta: [00:05:24] Yeah. Good idea.

Dan: [00:05:25] What have you been up to?

Jacinta: [00:05:27] Several things. So, first of all, I have finished a research paper.

Dan: [00:05:31] Congratulations.

Jacinta: [00:05:32] Thank you. Yeah, for those who don’t know, that’s what we get paid to do. That’s what I get paid to do, is unique research and then publish it in an international journal. So I have finished a research paper, which uses the MeerKAT telescope. We’ve got some data as part of the big international collaboration and I am looking at giant radio galaxies and we found some pretty cool things, but I can’t actually tell you the results yet until it’s been accepted for publication.

So watch this space and I will be able to tell you all about it soon. The other thing I’ve been doing is running the podcasting boot camp for our wonderful Cosmic Savannah trainees. You and I, Dan, have been running this training boot camp where we’ve taught them everything from interviewing a guest to doing their own editing and creating the entire episode, publishing it, writing their show notes and social media. And we’re very, very proud of all of our boot camp graduates and you’ll have seen the results of their hard work in the mini episodes that we published during the break of the formal seasons of The Cosmic Savannah.

Dan: [00:06:41] Yeah. I mean, I think that it was a great experience for us take stock of what we’ve learned and try and share that with some younger astronomers who are excited to share their work. And I think that we’ll definitely chat more to them in the future and see what they’ve been up to.

Jacinta: [00:06:55] We’re hoping to incorporate them as regular contributors to the podcast. All right. Dan, what have you been up to?

Dan: [00:07:01] Whew, a lot. We’ll talk a little bit about it with Vanessa, but next week, when this comes out, but next week in reality too, will be the 200th anniversary of the SAAO. And that’s a that’s a big moment. I think that it’s a good time to take stock of where we’ve come from. South Africa has had a long and tumultuous history. The observatory had been operating for 200 years through all of that. It’s gone through many changes. It’s weathered many storms and produced excellent research throughout that time. I think it’s a great opportunity to look back at that but then, as we’ve been saying, it’s an excellent opportunity to look at the last couple of decades and the future, because 200 years of the astronomy in South Africa is truly world class. It’s an incredibly exciting place to be. And what’s coming in the next couple of decades is really going to be mind-blowing. So it’s a sort of nice moment to take stock. And look forward. And I think that we’ve been making a big effort – and I’ve been leading a lot of those efforts – to make a bit of a splash. So we’ll be holding various events next week to try and raise the profile of astronomy and the observatory.

Jacinta: [00:08:21] Tell us more about these events that you’ve been organizing, what events are being held for professionals and also for the public and how can people get involved and where can they find more information?

Dan: [00:08:32] There are various things underway. The first and probably biggest thing is the unveiling of the SAAO as a National Heritage Site. So in South Africa, much like you have World Heritage Sites around the world, we have National Heritage Sites recognizing the significance of a site and its cultural and heritage significance to the country. And then at the end of 2018, the SAAO was declared as a National Heritage Site and recognizing the scientific contributions over the years and that’s significance to the country and we will be unveiling this site as an official National Heritage Site on Tuesday, the 20th of October, which is 200 years to the day from the establishment of the observatory. So a big event on a big day. And we will have addresses by the Minister of Science and Innovation, the Minister of Arts and Culture and various others. We’ll be unveiling the plaque of the National Heritage Site.

Jacinta: [00:09:27] Wonderful. And how can people watch that?

Dan: [00:09:28] So it will be streamed online obviously for Covid regulations, we had planned a large in person event, but as such, we cannot proceed with that. So it will be a large online event. You will be able to link through from our website, otherwise follow the observatory on social media. We can post all those links in the show notes, but if you just go to saao.ac.za, you’ll be able to get all the information you need. Other events going on – we have a large Astronomy Symposium happening that week, which kicks off on the Tuesday and runs through to Friday. We’ve got talks from astronomers all over Africa, and we will be talking about the exciting astronomy going on. We’ll talk about the history, we’ll be talking about astronomy going on across Africa, we’ll be talking about the social impact of astronomy and the indigenous knowledge and really covering a lot of topics and we’re trying to keep it quite general and inclusive. And in that vein, it is open to all. So if any interested astronomers or, you know, amateur astronomers or anyone just interested in astronomy and what’s going on here, you’re welcome to join. That website is saao200.saao.ac.za, but basically you just go to our website and you’ll find links to everything. So yeah, that’ll be a very exciting three-and-a-half day program and anyone is welcome to join and see what we’re doing. It’ll be streamed online again, all fully virtual. It should be very exciting.

Jacinta: [00:10:53] Yeah. I’m really excited about that. So you and I will be chairing a couple of the sessions. So looking forward to hearing the contributions of everyone in that and any other events for the public?

Dan: [00:11:07] Obviously the public is of huge importance to us. And the original plan was to have a large astronomy festival this week. And obviously that can’t go ahead. We can’t have thousands of people in one space. So we have tried as much as possible to run a virtual program. And we’ve already had a couple of events: virtual storytelling we will have a series of lectures through the week, which will happen in the evenings with time for questions and the answers from the public. Those will be on our Facebook page and also streamed online on YouTube. So we encourage the public to get involved in those. We also have an astrophotography competition at every level. So you’re welcome to submit sketches or drawings or paintings, or as well as, you know, some high end astrophotography, if that’s what you’re into. And then on the last evening of the virtual festival, we will be having a virtual star party. So we all have some live stargazing, which will be streamed live. And that’ll be interspersed with music from Master Kg – who is famous in South Africa and probably in other places around the world for his recent hit Jerusalema. Our South African president even mentioned and got encouraged at the nation to get involved in doing this dance, which…

Jacinta: [00:12:17] Really? I missed that entire thing.

Dan: [00:12:20] In one of his presidential addresses, he sort of got everyone trying to do the dance. We are gonna get involved in and do our best.  I haven’t learned the dance yet.

Jacinta: [00:12:35] Well, I’ve been watching you dance around your office today. What’s your song?

Dan: [00:12:40] Well, so I’ve been dealing with an incredible…

Jacinta: [00:12:44] Little bit of stress?

Dan: [00:12:45] I’ve been dealing with it a little bit of stress. I’ve been taking a leaf out of The Beach Boys’ book and dreaming of Kokomo. Okay.

Jacinta: [00:12:56] Come on, run off a few lines for us.

Dan: [00:12:58] Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya’ to Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama

Jacinta: [00:13:07] Okay, well, thank you.

Dan: [00:13:11] I’m sorry. I was just getting back.

Jacinta: [00:13:14] You were inspired by Space Force. If anyone’s seen that on Netflix.

Dan: [00:13:19] Steve Carell. Wonderful. Anyway, we should really get to work.

Jacinta: [00:13:22] We really should. Okay. Now, well, should we hear from Vanessa?

Dan: [00:13:26] Absolutely.

Jacinta: [00:13:26] All right. Let’s hear from Vanessa about the OAD – her role as Head of Research at the SAAO and several other hats that she wears, she kind of just does everything.

Dan: [00:13:36] She sure does.

Jacinta: [00:13:37] All right. Let’s hear from Vanessa.

Dan: [00:13:40] So today we’re joined by Vanessa McBride, who is based at the Office of Astronomy for Development here at the South African Astronomical Observatory. And she’ll be talking to us a little bit about what she does. Vanessa, welcome to The Cosmic Savannah.

Vanessa McBride: [00:13:58] Hi Dan. Hi, Jacinta. And nice to be here.

Jacinta: [00:14:01] Thanks very much for joining us.

Dan: [00:14:04] So Vanessa, perhaps you can just explain to us some of your wide and varied roles, with the Office of Astronomy for Development, but also for the observatory.

Vanessa McBride: [00:14:12] I’m an astronomer at the Office of Astronomy for Development. It’s one of the offices of the International Astronomical Union, which is based in Cape Town and hosted at the South African Astronomical Observatory.

I’m, also fulfilling the role of Head of Research at the South African Astronomical Observatory. And that’s a role that allows me to try to work with other astronomers, to create an environment that’s really conducive to research at the observatory. And I also have an adjunct associate professorship at the University of Cape Town where I participate in some teaching and joint research projects at postgraduate level.

 Dan: [00:14:54] You’re right, hey, wide and various. I’m not sure where you find the time. Perhaps we should start with just talking a little bit about the Office of Astronomy for Development and what exactly, the objectives of the office are for the International Astronomical Union, also, locally. 

Vanessa McBride: [00:15:14] Okay. Well the office has been established in 2011 and really it grew out of the idea that, you know, the skills, the methods, the techniques we use, in astronomy can really be applied more broadly than just in astronomy. And it’s also, you know, comes together with the fact that as I’m sure all of us know, astronomy is interesting to a wide variety of people, it has a philosophical context to it.

It’s also part of many different cultures. And so using all of those aspects, we try to think about ways that, astronomy can influence the sustainable development goals. So look at how social economic development can be affected in some way through astronomy.

Dan: [00:16:08] What are some of the examples of these projects? I mean, I know that in the recent months and, last year, with the Covid pandemic, there have been a lot of astronomers who’ve, lent a hand in terms of modelling and trying to predict the pandemic and analyse the data. Whether those, contributions were welcome and productive, I’m not sure, but I know that a lot of astronomers, and many that I know personally got involved in that, is this the kind of thing you’re talking about, or what are some of the other examples of projects that the office runs.

Vanessa McBride: [00:16:40] Yeah, I think that’s part of it Dan. So for example, there can be sort of fields in which you can apply techniques, for example, the models and things that have been applied through Covid, these are things that are, based in differential equations.

But of course that requires specific domain knowledge, right? Which often we don’t have as astronomers. So for that reason, one of the focuses of our office is really to work in a sort of cross-disciplinary context because, we may come as astronomers with some of the skills, but we don’t always have that domain specific knowledge that you need really to make an impact.

Like we’re not up to date with medical literature, we don’t know what things they’ve tried and failed. So, we can make contributions, but it’s also important to do it in conjunction with the experts in the field. I mean, some of the other examples of how astronomy can make an impact, are kind of embodied in the three flagship projects of the OAD at the moment.

So OAD is Office of Astronomy for Development, and at the moment we have three of these kinds of projects that have crystallized over the last 10 years through a process where anyone can apply for funding to run one of these astronomy for development projects. And those projects – the first is looking at how a socio-economic development can happen around an observatory. So that may be either through, direct economic empowerment. So for example, if you have a beautiful observatory and a dark sky site, it may not be a research observatory, but it could attract tourists, for example. And those – through tourism – generate money for the local community.

Another of our flagship projects is looking at the kind of the big picture at how, if you look at the earth from space and sort of the view that astronomy gives you, how can that kind of perspective allow us to be better global citizens? And that project is being led through the European regional office of astronomy for development.

And then the last flagship project really looks at sort of data and skills in astronomy and how those transfer to other fields. So that looks at things like machine learning, data wrangling these kinds of things that we have to do in our daily lives as astronomers. But the fact is that they’re also incredibly valuable in other economic sectors and of course, in other fields of data intensive research,

Jacinta: [00:19:28] That’s absolutely fantastic Vanessa and the work of the OAD is really, really awesome. So for our listeners, could you explain a bit more about what you mean by development and I guess many people are surprised when we say that astronomy can be used for development.  I know you’ve written a lot on that in the past. Could you say a bit more about that?

Vanessa McBride: [00:19:49] Yeah. So I think it’s captured most simply in the slogan that we use in our office: “Astronomy for a better world”. And so, by development we mean improving people’s lives in some way; whether that is improving their lives by allowing them to have better the prospects for finding jobs or whether it’s improving their lives by allowing them to make additional income through an astro-tourism initiative or whether it’s improving lives through a better quality of education or access to new educational content. All of those are ways in which development can be impacted. And at the Office of Astronomy for Development, we use the United Nations’ sustainable development goals as a very broad sort of, metric for development.

You’ve probably seen some of the lovely posters; they’re very colourful posters showing these 17 development goals that range from sort of good health and wellbeing to economic empowerment through to, quality education and partnerships for the goals. So these are what we use as our definition of development in the broadest sense.

Dan: [00:21:05] How does the office implement these projects? I mean, do you take an active role? Is it a funding role? is it an advisory role where people report to you and on their progress and   on their goals and how they’re affecting the environment they’re in? I mean, is there a process of monitoring and evaluation that’s taking place to see the effect of these sorts of interventions?

Vanessa McBride: [00:21:29] To some extent there is, Dan, so at the moment, and actually since 2013, the OAD has run an annual call for proposals that is open to anyone in the world. And it’s a call for funding.

So you can suggest an Astronomy for Development proposal, in any sort of field that you want, you don’t even need to be an astronomer or have an affiliation with a university or a research institute. And then you can have a small chunk of funding. It’s usually a few thousand euros and those projects can come from anywhere in the world and they’re usually funded for a year and there is a kind of a monitoring and evaluation process – fairly simple because of course the grants that are not so big. So we don’t want to make these things too onerous for small grants. And then with the flagship projects – how we see those developing. So those are more of a sort of top down approach where we can imagine having rather large programs with a potential for a global rollout and those will have to be funded separately. At the moment we have some funding for aspects of the flagship projects, but they’re not fully funded at the moment. So we kind of have a real mixture of grassroots projects that are designed very much by the community and then these sorts of higher level projects with the potential for outside funding.

What we also did this year – because it was such an unusual year for everyone – is we had a very rapid turnaround COVID related call for proposals. So in addition to our usual call we had a call that was an attempt to try and alleviate some of the burden on people placed by the pandemic and by the lockdown.

So we had such a variety of proposals from all over the world for this funding – so it ranged from cultivating food gardens, during lockdown to making data available for remote tutoring of students at schools and universities. So a whole range of projects, really. We’re interested in this kind of funding.

Jacinta: [00:23:41] Can you give us some examples of your favourite projects?

Vanessa McBride: [00:23:45] Yeah, of course, I have a couple of favourites, but one of them that really stands out for me, is a project that was run a couple of years ago in Sierra Leone. The point of that project was to improve literacy in school aged children. And they just were very sneaky about it because they made the topic so interesting. They used astronomy as kind of the hook to just grab the interest of these school aged children and to teach them these concepts around literacy as they were going through it. So they were kind of just learning without realizing they were learning.

So that’s one of the projects I really like. Another project that I thought was really interesting was a collaboration between a group in the UK and a group in Kenya.  And the point of this was that there are many eye conditions which don’t need to leave you with a disability if they are often treated, right. But the problem is that in lots of rural regions you don’t have access to ophthalmologists or someone who can really diagnose what’s wrong with your eyes.

This project was looking at a kind of a Zooniverse approach to diagnosing these eye conditions. So they’ve made a specially adapted camera that could go on the back of a mobile phone and you could take pictures of people’s retina with this and that was done through field workers and they would then upload these pictures onto a site for classification through crowd sourcing, right. So many different people all over the world could potentially log into a browser and then learn through a simple tutorial, how to classify various of these conditions. And that way you could get a diagnosis. So this is a project, of course, it was a trial run, but seemed to work quite well.

Dan: [00:25:36] Wow that’s very cool. So for those of you who don’t know, Zooniverse is another astronomy program where you can go online and identify different astronomical objects generally galaxies with your eyes because the human eye is still quite a lot better than the normal computing techniques. So it was sort of a crowd sourced approach to gaining some astronomy knowledge. Very cool to use it for ophthalmology.

Vanessa McBride: [00:26:02] Yeah. There’s all sorts of interesting projects on the Zooniverse now, that actually have nothing to do with astronomy.

Dan: [00:26:07] Really? I haven’t been on for a while, obviously. We’ll plug it in our show notes and send some people there. So you’re juggling this sort of Astronomy for Development, but also your own research and the research of the entire observatory?

Vanessa McBride: [00:26:25] Thankfully, I don’t have to do it single-handedly, right? I think we’re very fortunate at the observatory that we have like a really dedicated and motivated bunch of people who are doing research. And of course, in addition to all the other things, like keeping the observatory running, making sure telescopes are operational. So that part of the job is kind of easy. You just have to think about ways in which we could enable people to do the best research they can.

Dan: [00:26:56] So your role is essentially to encourage researchers and enable them to do more work. And this is – we have these facilities up in Sutherland where astronomers can use them – but we’re also a national facility and we provide telescope observing time to all of the South African researchers at universities and it also researches abroad. Does that fall under your gambit or are you primarily focused on the research of the observatory itself?

Vanessa McBride: [00:27:22] No, my primary role is really to look at research of astronomers and students here at the observatory. We know we have a huge amount of people using the telescopes and the instruments in Sutherland, but it’s very important also, that our Institute provides more than just a service, right.

We don’t just provide instruments to use, but we use them ourselves and we are doing cutting edge science with those. And it’s important that we stay at the forefront because, once you really doing the cutting edge science and you know what you need to discover the next problem, it allows you to feed that knowledge back into building a telescope or an instrument that the community can really use and that you can use to do that kind of science. So we see it as a very kind of, I don’t know, yin and yang process that you really need the good science in order to make the observatory work.

Dan: [00:28:17] Did you know, that, yesterday I looked up how many research publications the observatory has produced in its 200 year history. Anyone want to guess?

Jacinta: [00:28:39] I’ve got no idea.

Vanessa McBride: [00:28:41] What, do we produce about 80 a year?

Dan: [00:28:43] So 136 last year, but 3000 in total, over the 200 year history with over 75,000 citations.

Jacinta: [00:28:47] Gosh.

Vanessa McBride: [00:28:48] Wow.

Jacinta: [00:28:49] So, fairly productive. Yeah, that’s amazing. So that brings us to the 200th anniversary of the SAAO. Vanessa, so you’re Head of Research and you’re also involved with the OAD. Can you tell us a little bit more about your insights into the history of the observatory and its role in the community, inclusivity and where we’re moving towards the future.

Vanessa McBride: [00:29:16] Thanks Jacinta. I don’t have a huge amount of knowledge on the history of the observatory, but I do think this 200 year milestone is kind of an interesting place to be because obviously the observatory was founded as guidance for the Navy – for the Admiralty in their efforts to colonize and, expand the empire. So in a way it’s got a bit of an interesting background, but yet here we are today and we’re doing this amazing science and we’re also trying to grow this community and cohort of black astronomers, which we’re just starting to see move into these professional positions. So I think it’s very exciting time to kind of look both back at the history of the observatory – where we come from – but also to look forward because it’s a moment really to shape the future of the observatory.

Dan: [00:30:16] Yeah, I think there’s something wonderful about something so old, because it does show you how things transform. As you said, it started off as essentially a time service for the Royal Navy and very quickly, in a matter of a decade or two, transformed it to one of the global leading observatories – astronomical research observatories – in the world. We measured the first distance to a star, we did the first photographic sky survey here and then now in recent decades, we’ve transformed again into this sort of South African Observatory with SALT being the pinnacle of that – with SALT being unveiled in 2005. And since then it’s really a world class telescope – one of the largest in the world and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. I think that looking at that journey from those beginnings to where we are now, and then imagining where we can go in the next few decades. It’s pretty amazing to me. I think it’s incredibly exciting. And as you say, it’s a wonderful opportunity to do that re-imagining and try and look at where the observatory is going to go.

Vanessa McBride: [00:31:25] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think it’s very exciting that, we’ve had this institution in South Africa, for all this time, doing cutting edge science and through some pretty tumultuous times. It’s I mean it’s been consolidated as the South African Observatory. It’s sort of seen through Apartheid times and now we’re really trying to work hard to undo this legacy of Apartheid that we’ve been left with. And it’s quite interesting to see how the observatory and its people are moving through these new times, because of course there’s a lot of work to be done we are still, very consumed with unlearning some of the prejudice that all of us have picked up through these times. And really building an observatory that is inclusive and welcoming to most of South Africa’s population.

 Jacinta: [00:32:21] Okay. So there’s a bit of work still to do, or a lot of work still to do, which, I’m really glad to hear that there’s people like you and your colleagues and others pushing for this. In your role as Head of Research, what sort of vision do you have for the near to medium future?

Vanessa McBride: [00:32:26] So thanks Jacinta. I think it’s fun to work on these vision questions because you know, part of the job here is really to bring together this amazing group of researchers and to inspire them with a vision that we can all get behind and move forward. If you think about the last couple of decades we’ve seen, as Dan mentioned, the Southern African Large Telescope go from an idea to an actual living telescope that is working and producing results.

We’ve also seen – in South Africa and this landscape- the MeerKAT radio telescope, which also, just was an idea. And we then won the bid for the site and we now have an incredible telescope that we’re using to produce fantastic results. So what is the next big thing on the horizon? And I think that’s where we are at the moment – we’re thinking, where do we go from here? What are the instruments, what are the techniques that we are going to use to push the big questions in astronomy going forward?

And are those big questions about new and interesting discoveries that we are going to find through the big surveys of the sky that are coming online? All these questions we want to answer about how galaxies evolve and how they form and how they give rise to the stars and planets that we know. The things that we’re battling with, not only me, but it’s the whole of the observatory at the moment, is sort of working together, putting their heads together to think about,  what is the area in which we want to lead and what will be the big thing that we do in the coming decades.

Dan: [00:34:18] Yeah for me. I mean, you say, we’re putting our heads together; where can we go from here? I feel like it’s and maybe it’s just me, but I feel like it’s so much more exciting than that. It’s like, where can’t we go from here? We have SALT. We have MeerKAT, the SKA is coming – there’s limitless opportunity in South Africa for astronomy.  We have government support, we have the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act. We really are in a uniquely positive position in the world when it comes to growing astronomy. I think that it’s, the next 20 years for us, the opportunities are endless. And I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be an astronomy.

Vanessa McBride: [00:35:00] I agree, Dan. I think we really do. We have a lot that we can choose from here. And I think part of the value that we have here in South Africa, is also that we recognize, by hosting the OAD and by the work that the observatory does in the collateral benefits around SALT in the schools’ program, we realized that, whilst we do niche research about these kinds of topics, we also realize that a lot of the techniques, the methods, and in fact, the inspiration of astronomy really has to be available to a larger part of the population. We have to use this to inspire students, to study science. You know, we have to use these techniques to think of ways of lifting people out of poverty, because at the end of the day, we are in a country where we are facing these challenges of poverty, and unemployment.

Dan: [00:35:55] I mean I think you’re right. How can we use this advantage to further the socio-economic development of our country? It’s clear we are at a huge advantage in terms of astronomy right now and it’s an incredibly powerful position to be in and we need to make sure that we optimize that so that our citizens – the South Africans and Africans – gain the maximum benefit from it. Because at the end of the day, it’s our astronomy, which we are doing here in Africa and we need a full buy-in and full inclusivity of our citizens, in that endeavour.

Vanessa McBride: [00:36:34] I agree. And I think one of the ways I like to say that it’s – as astronomers – we sometimes have our heads in the stars, but we really do need to have our feet firmly planted on the ground.

Jacinta: [00:36:45] Absolutely.   And it’s a privilege to study astronomy and it’s so fascinating and exciting. I think we do owe it to society of course to share this passion and the insights, and with all of the other benefits that we’ll bring and especially if it can help in the areas of development. Just before we end, Vanessa, you mentioned that you also work at UCT – the University of Cape Town – and you do your own research and you have your own students. So can you mention a little bit about that and what you work on?

Vanessa McBride: [00:37:18] I do supervise some students. Actually, I have one master’s student who’s just writing up now. I have no PhD students – one of them has just submitted and received her PhD this year.   But, my field of interest is these binary stars that are transferring mass from a really massive star- much bigger than the sun – onto what we call a compact object or a neutron star and that’s the remnants of a star; after it has exhausted its fuel. Just the core remains as a very dense object called a neutron star.  I study these kinds of objects in our neighbouring galaxies – you may have seen them in the sky; the large and small Magellanic clouds – and they’re interesting objects because they trace star formation and you can see these things out to pretty large distances. Some of the stuff I’ve been working on recently is really trying to trace how – being in a binary, like this, these two stars where they’re transferring mass from one to the other – actually changes the evolutionary pathway of these stars.

So it means that they go through different phases than they would have if they were just isolated and sort of burning fuel on their own. So my work involves mostly observations in the optical, some observations in X-ray and more recently we’ve done some observations in the radio to try and connect the dots of these objects at different phases in their lives to really see how they evolve as a group.

Jacinta: [00:38:52] So have you been using SALT or MeerKAT for this work?

Vanessa McBride: [00:38:55] Yes, we have. We’ve had some MeerKAT observations last year, which we’re still analysing. And we also use SALT on a regular basis. It allows us to measure how far away these objects all from each other, how big their orbits are, and actually helps us to try and understand some of the process of this transferring of mass from one component, one of the stars onto the other.

Jacinta: [00:39:20] That’s so cool.  SALT and MeerKAT are just amazing and all of the work from the observatory also SARAO – the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory. I’ve been quite silent during this discussion because all of the excitement of South African astronomy is making me question my future and I just never really want to leave. This is just really the best place to be an astronomer right now. So yeah, exciting times.

Vanessa McBride: [00:39:44] Yeah, exciting times and lots to come.

Dan: [00:39:46] Speaking of lots to come, there was one other role, Vanessa, which you have not mentioned, which I will mention. That is, you are leading the organization of the IAU general assembly in 2024, which will be held here in Cape Town. Do you want to talk to us a little bit about that?

Vanessa McBride: [00:40:03] Yeah, that’s a super exciting event on our calendar, right. Even though it’s four years away.  So the International Astronomical Union has been around for about a hundred years and they have a general assembly – so a big meeting every three years – one of my colleagues describes it as the World Cup of astronomy.

This meeting has been to many places on the globe but it has never yet been held on the continent of Africa. So we were thrilled to win the bid to host this meeting in 2024. The meeting will be held in Cape Town, but it really is an African meeting because it’s the first time it will be held in Africa.

Whilst it’s exciting to have the meeting here in Cape Town, it’s also a fantastic opportunity that we can use to work towards some of the collaborations and how we want the astronomy community across Africa to evolve as we work towards this meeting in 2024. So you may have heard recently, that the African Astronomical Society has been re-established with a new vigour and they are really doing some incredible work in pulling the community of astronomers together, on the African continent. For now, it’s a small community, but it’s really been growing very rapidly. We’re very excited to see Africa represented in the global astronomy endeavour in this way.

Dan: [00:41:35] It’s very exciting, I mean, four years away as if somebody who’s just been organizing all this stuff for next week, four years is very, very close.

Jacinta: [00:41:48] Well, we may as well end it here and let you both get on with your organization of your multiple roles.  Good luck for the 200th anniversary celebrations and we look forward to talking to you again soon, Vanessa.

Vanessa McBride: [00:42:01] Lovely chatting to you, Jacinta and Dan.

Dan: [00:42:04] And you, Vanessa. Thanks for joining us.

Jacinta: [00:42:04] Bye. 

Jacinta: [00:42:06] Dan, I was having a bit of, as I said, a bit of an existential crisis while I was listening to you and Vanessa speak during that interview, which of course we did on Zoom, which was the reason for the slightly poor audio quality. But, you’re right. It’s just so exciting here in South Africa. My contract’s only for another year and I have to decide, you know, where in the world I want to go after that, but astronomy here is so good.

Dan: [00:42:41] Yeah. I mean, it really is. I think that we are in a golden era here in South Africa for astronomy. And I think that there’s going to be some major discoveries coming out of this country, which is the goal of astronomy research at the end of the day. But I’m very excited for the all South Africans.

Jacinta: [00:43:00] Slight sidestep. Speaking of recent, amazing astronomical discoveries. Life on Venus?

Dan: [00:43:06] Well, no, you know, some new molecules on Venus, which we don’t have a non-biological explanation for.

Jacinta: [00:43:12] I mean, I’m not saying it’s aliens, but… no, I thought that was really cool. I watched that press release and there’s been some absorption patterns in the light coming from Venus. And that could either be some chemical process that we’ve never observed on the earth or being able to reproduce on the earth, or it could be from some sort of bacteria, microbial life in the atmosphere of Venus, which we haven’t, we’re not saying it’s aliens, but it’s a tantalizing signal.

Dan: [00:43:48] Yeah, and I think it’s good to look the other way for a change. Everyone always looks at Mars. I think the advantage of Mars is, despite it being hostile and whatever, it’s not quite as hostile as Venus.

Jacinta: [00:43:59] Yeah. It doesn’t have sulfuric acid rain, for example.

Dan: [00:44:06] We have the feeling we could make Mars livable, but Venus is like the end point of our climate change disaster.

Jacinta: [00:44:15] Well it’s the runaway greenhouse effect, so let’s avoid that. Anyway, I think that’s pretty much it for today. Dan, did you want to give us any final plugs?

Dan: [00:44:24] Yeah, just a reminder, if you are interested in getting involved in the 200 year celebrations or watching the unveiling or anything, check out our website. Otherwise follow the observatory on social media and we’ll obviously share the links on The Cosmic Savannah social media too.

Jacinta: [00:44:39] Alrighty. So that’s the end of season three episode, one.

Dan: [00:44:43] Episode 27…

Jacinta: [00:44:46] of The Cosmic Savannah. Thank you very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again for the next episode.

Dan: [00:44:52] You can visit our website thecosmicsavannah.com. We will have the transcript links and other stuff related to today’s episode. You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @cosmicsavannah. That’s Savannah, spelled S-A-V-A-N-N-A-H.

Jacinta: [00:45:06] Special thanks today to associate Professor Vanessa McBride for speaking with us.

Dan: [00:45:11] Thanks to Sumari Hattingh for social media and transcription assistance.

Jacinta: [00:45:14] Also to Mark Allnut for music production, Janus Brink and Michal Lyczek how for photography and Lana Ceraj for graphic design.

Dan: [00:45:22] We greatfully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation, the South African Astronomical Observatory and the University of Cape Town – Astronomy Department – to help keep the podcast running.

Jacinta: [00:45:31] You can subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you’d like to help us out, please rate and review us and recommend us to a friend.

Dan: [00:45:40] And we’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.

[End music]

Dan: Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya’ to Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama.