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Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) project receives award

A team including satellite communications innovator Goonhilly Earth Station and a consortium of universities and institutes led by the University of Leeds’ School of Physics and Astronomy announced that they have won the Better Satellite World Award for the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) project.

The Better Satellite World Awards is supported by the Society of Satellite Professionals International (SSPI) worldwide and celebrates innovation in the space and satellite sector.

DARA, a Newton Fund project led by Professor Melvin Hoare of the University of Leeds with Goonhilly as an industry partner, uses radio astronomy to develop high-tech and business skills in eight sub-Saharan African countries: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia. Part of the UK’s official development assistance, the Newton Fund was launched in 2014 to support the economic and social welfare of partner countries by strengthening their science and innovation capacity.

DARA’s partner organisations train local students in radio astronomy – 140 to date. The goal is to share technical and commercial expertise that inspires the students to boost economic growth by setting up their own businesses and passing on their knowledge and skills to the next generation of students.

The hosting of the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope in South Africa played a key part in Professor Hoare’s decision to set up DARA. A precursor project, the African VLBI Network, includes the deployment of a network of radio telescopes across the eight countries. The first of these radio telescopes, upcycled from a defunct 32-m telecoms dish, was recently inaugurated in Ghana.

Goonhilly brings commercial expertise as well as providing valuable student training. It is also collaborating with Professor Hoare and other UK universities to convert the old 30-m class telecoms dishes into radio telescopes on its own site.

“The benefits of radio astronomy reach beyond the STEM skills that underpin a strong developed economy. DARA aims to instill a research ethos as well as the communication and diagnostic skills that are transferable to many aspects of a developing economy,” said Ian Jones, CEO at Goonhilly.

“The Better Satellite World recognises the important role DARA is playing, for example transferring radio astronomy skills in computing to areas including healthcare, food security and sustainable agriculture.”

From the outset, raising awareness of the commercial opportunities that come from radio astronomy was integral to the programme. One student in Zambia has already gone on to start a consulting firm providing environmental project briefs for large companies using their knowledge of satellite data. Furthermore, the DARA project is also funding students to undergo Masters and PhD studies in the UK.

“Our experienced entrepreneurial partners have helped to open the minds of trainees to the possibilities available to them in the industrial and commercial sectors. With the prestigious Better Satellites World award under our belt we are inspired to continue our hard work with the goal of helping transform the economies of these countries,” said Prof. Hoare from the University of Leeds.

“We couldn’t help but be impressed by DARA’s work in bringing together experts in radio astronomy, satellite and space technology to help grow expertise in these fields in Africa. The project’s powerful combination of technology and business acumen is already paying dividends for the students who have undertaken courses. The Better Satellite World award is our way of thanking everyone involved,” said Louis Zacharilla, Director of Innovation & Development at SSPI.