On Namibia’s engrossing, pitch-dark winter nights, nothing gets between Michael Backes’ telescope and the sky. The German astrophysicist, who has lived and worked in Namibia since 2013, marvels at the attributes that make this southwest African country a dream location for scientists of the stars. “You want to be around the tropics, where you have fewer clouds,” Backes says, “and on the west coast of each continent, where you always rotate away from the clouds; a bit elevated, above sea level, and away from stray light.”
Namibia, known to travelers for the otherworldly red dunes around the Sossusvlei valley, includes huge patches of land unscathed by air pollution, radio interference, or light pollution from cities. It’s touched by sunshine — and clear night skies — 300 days a year. More than twice the size of Germany, yet home to only 2.5 million people, Namibia is one of the world’s least densely populated countries, with only eight people per square mile. Because of that, most of the country is astonishingly free of artificial light. “Its absence is amazing,” Backes says.
For a nation that’s only 30 years old, a fledgling democracy still forging an independent economic future, those clear, dark skies are a natural resource. When people think about global astronomy research, they often think about Chile and Australia, famous Southern Hemisphere sites of telescopes dating back to the 18th century and beyond.A Spanish soldier observed a lunar eclipse in Chile in 1582, some sources write. Through a classic Greek method, he used measurements of the eclipse to calculate the latitude of the city of Valdivia.
But in recent decades, Namibia has been striving to catch up. The centerpiece of its research structure currently rests about 60 miles west of the capital, Windhoek, atop the rugged, eerily peaceful, mile-high plateau of Khomas Hochland. There, 260 scientists from 13 countries have been relentlessly scouring the skies through five High Energy Stereoscopic System (H.E.S.S.) telescopes, perfect for studying gamma rays, regions around black holes, and supernova explosions.
Now, a few scientists are working toward a project that’s even more ambitious, and maybe a little quixotic: moving a massive telescope to Namibia’s third-highest mountain, in the hope of using the country’s prime location to further advance the world’s study of black holes.
But to do so will mean overcoming economic and logistical challenges — and convincing more governments and scientists worldwide that the future of astronomy is in Africa.
Namibia’s stake in astronomical research began in earnest in 2002, when several scientific institutions began operating the first H.E.S.S. telescope. Since then, scientists such as Christo Venter, a space physicist at South Africa’s North-West University, have studied pulsars (small, dense stars that send out radio waves), globular clusters (collections of stars that orbit a galactic core), and pulsar wind nebulae (interstellar dust found inside supernova remnants).
Their work has included the first-ever image of an astronomical object taken using high-energy gamma rays in 2004, which resolved a 100-year-old mystery about the origin of these mysterious cosmic rays. In 2016, H.E.S.S. scientists discovered that the center of our Milky Way has a “trap” containing the mightiest, and possibly fastest, cosmic rays in the galaxy.
“The silence and beauty are breathtaking and remind me of the incredible wisdom and power of our creator.”
Venter travels from South Africa to H.E.S.S. for three weeks at a time. On the remote Göllschau family farm in Namibia’s Khomas region, he works at night and sleeps during the day. He describes the experience as spiritual. “The silence and beauty are breathtaking and remind me of the incredible wisdom and power of our creator,” he says.
But there are also prosaic reasons why scientists see Namibia as a prime location. Backes, who teaches at the University of Namibia and heads the Namibian H.E.S.S. activities, talks about the ready access to government officials, which makes it easier for scientists to seek government support for their projects.
“The communities are so much smaller, and people are very friendly here,” says Backes, who commutes to the telescope from his home in Windhoek, population 325,000. “You would more easily know someone who knows someone in the government, and they might be good friends, and all of a sudden you’re at the same birthday party or something. Or you may stumble upon a minister at the supermarket, just like that.”
Now, the ambitions of Namibia’s astronomic community are growing. In 2017, Namibia joined nine other African countries that are working toward developing the Square Kilometer Array, the world’s largest radio telescope. Expected to be built in South Africa or Australia, the project aspires to give to the world the sharpest-ever pictures of the sky.
Backes, who is also vice-chair of the Namibia Scientific Society, also hopes to bring to fruition — and to Namibia — a project known as the African Millimeter Telescope, or AMT. In this joint endeavor by the University of Namibia and Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, scientists would bring a refurbished telescope to Namibia and use it as the missing link in a global network of radio telescopes, known collectively as the Event Horizon Telescope. The network, which observes radio sources associated with black holes, captured the first image of a black hole in April 2019.
If it happens, AMT would be the only millimeter-wave observatory on the African continent and one of a handful of facilities in the Southern Hemisphere.
“It would participate in a suite of important experiments, including the monitoring of explosive phenomena in the universe and mapping the gas in distant galaxies,” says Roger Deane, a physicist at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
But creating the AMT would involve a massive feat of logistics. First, workers would have to disassemble the Swedish-ESO Submillimeter Telescope, or SEST, an old telescope dish in Chile that was decommissioned in 2003. Then they’d have to haul the approximately five-ton telescope to Namibia and mount it on the flat-topped summit of Gamsberg Mountain, Namibia’s third-tallest mountain, 7,700 feet high.
“Detailed inspections show the decommissioned SEST telescope to be in remarkably good condition,” Deane says. But getting the telescope to the top of Gamsberg Mountain, he says, would require infrastructure that the nation doesn’t have. “The current road up to the mountain is not suitable for the required payload,” Deane says. The project’s backers would either need to build a new road or cable-car system or use a heavy-lift helicopter.
This is where Namibia’s ambition comes up against reality. The country of 2.5 million people has many other priorities: addressing its 27 percent poverty rate, its nearly 30 percent unemployment rate, and its 17 percent HIV prevalence rate. The young nation is still recovering from a politically turbulent past; Namibia gained its independence from South Africa in 1990 after a bush war of almost 25 years. “There are schools with only a blackboard and a tree,” Backes notes.
Backes says potential private sponsors of the AMT project, including corporations and charities, love the idea that their donations could support advanced, self-sustaining development in Africa, rather than simply “alleviating the pain of suffering people” without growing the economy. But so far, their zeal runs cold when they’re asked to put money on the table.
Now, Namibian officials and scientists are working hard to drum up support for the project. Lisho Mundia, director of research and innovation at Namibia’s Ministry of Higher Education, Technology and Innovation, says a team of professors from Namibia’s universities are studying how the country could benefit from the AMT. The project could have spinoff benefits for infrastructure, for instance; better transportation could support existing astro-tourism activity on the mountain. And for Namibian students, ambitious about learning and discovery, the project represents unprecedented access to science.
“With any given big international project, you bring cutting-edge, world-leading research to the students,” Backes says.
Hendrina Simon, 23, one of two undergraduate women who pursuing an astrophysics thesis at the University of Namibia this year, originally wanted to study education or nursing, until she learned that only physics and chemistry had available slots. In hindsight, she says, that was a blessing in disguise. “My studies have opened up possibilities I hadn’t considered,” she says.
That’s the sort of enthusiasm the astronomers hope to inspire in the next generation of Namibian students. Starting early February, a mobile planetarium full of astronomers from Radboud University will tour every Namibian school in the next five years. It’s an outreach program meant to get Namibian students and teachers excited about astronomy, in hopes that some join the AMT program someday as scientists and engineers.
Last year, the AMT boosters got one piece of good news. In mid-2019, an international panel comprised mostly of scientists working on millimeter-wave telescopes, as well as experts from Namibia’s engineering society, told the AMT team that it had passed the preliminary design review phase and had to march toward action, says Backes. Whether the project keeps momentum boils down to economics now: “We will need some serious financial infusion to make great leaps forward,” admits Backes.
Despite his team’s challenges, Backes is cautiously optimistic. “We will try to get some site-testing equipment to the mountaintop during the first quarter of this year,” he says.
The trick will be convincing potential donors, and the world, that change can come from the skies.