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African Astronomy

March 25, 2015

A couple of tiny constellations wheel low across the south on early spring evenings — Pyxis, the compass, and Antlia, the air pump. Both are faint, though, so you need a star chart to find them.

They were created by Nicolas de la Caille, a Frenchman who was one of the first astronomers to study the sky from southern Africa. He spent a couple of years at Cape Town in the 1750s, where he compiled a catalog of about 10,000 stars.

Several other European astronomers visited southern Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries, studying objects that weren’t visible from the northern hemisphere. Britain even established a royal observatory there in 1820. Its astronomers toiled in unpleasant conditions for decades, yet they made important observations of stars and other objects, and helped measure the shape of our planet Earth.

By the 20th century, though, astronomy in southern Africa was falling behind. The European governments that controlled much of the continent weren’t interested in scientific investments there. And after countries gained independence, most of them lacked the resources or the political will to build modern observatories.

But that’s starting to change. The Southern African Large Telescope — based on the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory — was built more than a decade ago. There’s also a gamma-ray observatory in Namibia, with radio telescopes taking shape across the region. More about that tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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