Official opening of Watcher telescope operations centre

On December 6th 2017 we were privileged to have with us the Minister of Science & Technology of the Republic of South Africa, Ms. Naledi Pandor, to open the Watcher Telescope Operations Centre.

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(L-R)  Drs. Morgan Fraser,  Antonio Martin-Carrillo, Lorraine Hanlon and Sheila McBreen with Minister Pandor (centre) cutting the ribbon to mark the opening of the Watcher Telescope Operations Centre in UCD.

Minister Pandor has dedicated her career to education and science policy, based on her long-held belief that these form the twin pillars of sustainable social and economic transformation, with a fundamental role in reducing inequality.

Ms. Pandor was born in Durban, but left South Africa with her family, going into exile from 1961 to 1984, first in Lesotho and Zambia, then to England and, later, Botswana. She matriculated at Gaborone Secondary School in Botswana, and completed a professional qualification in teaching, before returning to London to complete a postgraduate diploma and a Master’s degree in Education, focusing on: “Education in South Africa and the issues of race.” She later obtained a Master’s degree in General Linguistics from the University of Stellenbosch.

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Minister Pandor with members of the UCD School of Physics and the Space Science group.

Ms. Pandor taught English in London and Botswana before joining the University of Cape Town as a senior lecturer in 1989. She left the university to become Executive Director of the Desmond Tutu Educational Trust. By the time South Africa held its landmark democratic elections in 1994, she had taken a leading role in the formation of ANC education policies and became a Member of Parliament in the first post-apartheid Government, subsequently amassing impressive experience in numerous positions of leadership in public office.

In addition to her service as Minister of Science and Technology (2009-2012, 2014-date), Ms. Pandor has also served as Minister of Education (2004-2009), and as Minister of Home Affairs from 2012 to 2014 and serves on the National Executive Committee of the ANC.

UCDA group of Transition Year students, who were in UCD Physics participating in the annual ‘Transition Year Physics Experience’ got to meet the Minister. The Telescope Operations Centre will be a focal point for secondary school students visiting UCD who are interested in astronomy.

One of the Minister’s key goals in Government has been to widen access to higher education, and to ensure that educational institutions are representative of all the people of South Africa. For example, the South African Research Chairs Initiative was set-up in 2006 to counter the brain drain from South Africa, by establishing research chairs to attract and retain excellent researchers. In 2015, the Minister took decisive steps to counter the significant gender imbalance among chair-holders, by establishing 20 new chairs specifically for outstanding women scholars. This action has resulted in an increase in the percentage of female chair-holders from 20 percent in 2012 to 39 percent today.

Minister Pandor’s other key policy goal in Government has been in building the country’s competitive edge in research and innovation; an edge that she believes is the key to positioning South Africa in the global economy and to responding to the challenges of social transformation.

In the Minister’s words: “Science not only enables us to more decisively respond to major societal challenges, but also plays a critical part in helping to foster international partnership, friendship and solidarity.”

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Dr. Antonio Martin-Carrillo presented the Minister with a framed print of one of his photographs of the UCD Watcher robotic telescope at Boyden Observatory, Bloemfontein, South Africa

The situation in South Africa regarding the development of astronomy and space science has changed dramatically in recent years, thanks to Minister Pandor’s leadership. The South African National Space Agency was established in 2010 with a mandate that includes use of data from satellites to provide products and services for sustainable agriculture and food security; integrated water resources management; sustainable forestry management, as well as urban planning and infrastructure monitoring. Development of an optical Earth Observation satellite is planned to support food security and disaster management across the continent and will be a key element of South African contributions to a broader continental effort to leverage the potential of space for development, connecting research and innovation with sustainable development goals.

Back down to Earth, the Minister and her team successfully won a competitive bid for the siting of part of the future Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope in South Africa. This will be a transformative piece of global astronomy infrastructure into the next decade, and Africa is playing a leading role. Not only will SKA produce science that changes our understanding of the universe, but economic benefits from this investment will be achieved through foreign direct investment and through the development of the innovative new technologies needed to make the telescope deliver on its scientific promise.

Ireland is now taking its place among international astronomy organisations, such as the European Southern Observatory and the LOFAR radio astronomy project. While Ireland has been a member of the European Space Agency since the early 1970’s, we are now actively developing a national space policy and building capacity and skills in the space sector by developing the country’s first satellite, EIRSAT-1.

Now more than ever, strengthening the exchange of knowledge and experiences among international institutions and research groups, and promoting new partnerships and collaborations, is much needed and confers benefits to all.

UCD’s Space Science group has actively collaborated with Boyden Observatory and the University of the Free State in developing the Watcher robotic telescope to help us understand the physics of the some of the biggest explosions in the cosmos, the short-lived gamma-ray bursts. With the recent ground-breaking scientific discoveries connecting gravitational waves to some of these bursts, which are the result of two neutron stars colliding, we now plan to build a next generation optical telescope with our South African and Spanish partners to rapidly chase the fading light from these cataclysmic events. In the future SKA will also be an engine of discovery for transient events in the universe. A broad approach, that connects light across the spectrum, with particles and gravitational waves, will inevitably yield many profound new scientific discoveries in the next 20 years.

UCDFrom the Watcher Telescope Operations Centre, we can view data from the telescope and monitor its status via webcams and live data feeds.

We were delighted to welcome Minister Pandor to officially open the Watcher Telescope Operations Centre in UCD and hope that this very special occasion marks the beginning of even richer engagement, collaboration and discovery between UCD Physics & Space and our South African colleagues in the future.