Namibian participation in the H.E.S.S. observatory 2019-2021

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Oxford Physics


We propose to significantly increase host-country participation in the High Energy Stereoscopic System (H.E.S.S.), the world-leading gamma-ray observatory sited in Namibia. Undertaking a research programme on the physics of relativistic jets in active galaxies, led by two postdocs and with telescope operations and development supported by an electronic engineer, the University of Namibia (UNAM) will take on a sizeable share of observatory operations and science. This will allow the UNAM group to become globally competitive in the field of very-high-energy (VHE) astrophysics, and will have a secondary science benefit for the UK of increasing its participation in H.E.S.S. astrophysics programmes.

The project is particularly timely as the Namibian authorities have recently declared space science including astronomy a Priority Research Area for national socio-economic advancement, and plans are underway for ownership of the H.E.S.S. telescopes to be transferred to Namibia over the next 3-5 years.
The development aspects of the project arise from the capacity-building that will follow from growing the size and capabilities of the physics department at UNAM, as desired by the Namibian authorities, along with specific targeted activities by the postdocs that will guarantee short-term impact, in high-school education and tourism.

Planned Impact

The core development impact of our project is that it will build capacity in the Department of Physics at UNAM. The Namibian National Programme on Research, Science, Technology and Innovation (NPRSTI) has designated Space Science, including astronomy, as a Priority Research Area for economic and development. Capacity building by increasing research activity in astrophysics is seen by NCRST as an essential step towards economic development in areas such as electronics, high-speed computing and data analysis, and the NCRST has supported UNAM's successful efforts to appoint a new joint Research Chair in astrophysics with North-West University in South Africa. The evidence in favour of building astronomy research in order to encourage development is particularly strong in the region, with South Africa's experience with the SKA being a powerful leading example. Astronomy research project have particular relevance to ODA sustainable development goals Quality Education, Decent Work and Economic Growth and Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure.

In more specific terms, we can identify concrete, shorter-term impacts from three aspects of our research proposal.

The first is in electronics technology. The electronic engineer post will be an excellent opportunity for a local engineer to increase their expertise in this area. We have already begun investigations to identify suitable individuals who will be able to fulfil this role. It is ideal for an engineer who may afterwards wish to start up an SME, guaranteeing them a post for the two years of the project, and giving them access to cutting-edge digital electronics systems. The skills acquired would then be transferrable to other industries.

The second is in education. It has been shown in many studies that astronomy is an unmatched way to attract young people into the sciences, and at the classroom level this is a topic which can be introduced without expensive equipment. At UNAM, there will shortly be an introduction of an astronomy lecture course in the Bachelor of Education degree. One of the researchers hired at UNAM will contribute to the teaching of this course and they will also develop a programme of outreach to existing schools, for the benefit of present generation of teachers.

The third aspect is in tourism. Namibia already has a small, very professional, community of "astrofarms" which attract high-end amateur astronomers from around the world to take advantage of our clear, dark skies. We wish to begin diversifying this market to include opportunities for all tourists to learn some introductory astronomy as a part of their visit to Namibia. Tour guides will receive training delivered by the second of the UNAM researchers, so that they can teach all tourists about the sky during evening-time, naked-eye astronomy events.

Namibia's clear skies are a precious resource. This is why the H.E.S.S. observatory is in Namibia and is why the astro-tourism market in Namibia could rival any country in the world. With the identification of future tourist markets, and future funding opportunities form the UK, we would expect to expand our outreach and education activities further. For example, a unique area that Namibia could offer is in the area of Indigenous Knowledge, the ancient stories of the skies in Namibia's indigenous cultures. Our long-term ambition is to create a national astronomical research, education and tourism centre, where Namibians and visitors could learn astronomy, and the young will be inspired to learn science (of all disciplines) through exhibits, planetarium displays, and the clear Namibian skies themselves.


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