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Ethiopians have stars in their eyes

AFP | 2015-08-26 00:45:53.0
This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the galaxy cluster MACSJ0416. Jauzac and a team of researchers used almost 200 images of distant galaxies, whose light has been bent and magnified by this huge cluster, combined with the depth of Hubble data, to measure the total mass of this cluster more precisely than ever before.
Image by: ESA/Hubble, NASA, HST Frontier Fields

High above the crowded streets of Addis Ababa, among fields where farmers lead oxen dragging wooden ploughs, sits Ethiopia's space programme.

Perched at the top of the 3200m-high Mount Entoto, two metal domes house telescopes, each a metre in diameter. In operation for only a few months, they have propelled Ethiopia into an elite club of African countries to have embarked on a space programme.

Its programme is aimed at giving the country a technological boost that will aid its already rapid development.

"Science is part of any development cycle," says Abinet Ezra, spokesman for the Ethiopian Space Science Society. "Without science and technology nothing can be achieved.

"Our main priority is to inspire the young generation to be involved in science and technology."

The society, funded by Ethiopian-Saudi business tycoon Mohammed Alamoudi, was set up in 2004 to promote astronomy. But its supporters have had a tough ride setting up the space programme.

For the past decade, a handful of enthusiasts - including Solomon Belay, director of the observatory and a professor of astrophysics - battled with the authorities to convince them that, in a country that is still one of the poorest in the world, where malnutrition is still a threat, the exploration of space is not a luxury. Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012, considered them dreamers.

"People said we were crazy," says Belay.

The R39-million space observatory is, above all, a symbol. The site at Entoto, often hidden by clouds during the rainy season and close to the lights of Addis Ababa, struggles to compete with the world's major observatories, including the far larger Southern African Large Telescope in South Africa.

But Ethiopia has plans, including to build a far more powerful observatory in the northern mountains around Lalibela, far from city lights.

The government hopes to launch a national space agency - and to put an Ethiopian satellite in orbit within five years, for the monitoring of farmland and to boost communications.

"We are using space applications in everyday activities, for mobile phones, weather - space applications are fundamental," says Kelali Adhana, the International Astronomical Union chief for East Africa, based in Ethiopia. "We cannot postpone it, otherwise we allow ourselves to live in poverty."

At Ethiopia's Institute of Technology, in the northern town of Mekelle, scientists plan to test the first Ethiopian rocket to go more than 30km, although that is still far from the 100km frontier beyond which the Earth's atmosphere gives way to space proper.

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