Letters of Intent received in 2022

LoI 2024-2166
Small and medium size ground-based telescopes: an opportunity for emerging astronomy in Africa

Date: 6 August 2024 to 13 August 2024
Category: Focus meetings (GA)
Location: Cape Twon, South Africa
Contact: Yosry Azzam (y.azzam@nriag.sci.eg)
Coordinating division: Division B Facilities, Technologies and Data Science
Other divisions: Division C Education, Outreach and Heritage
Co-Chairs of SOC: Yosry Azzam (National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics (NRIAG))
Zouhair Benkhaldoun (Oukaimeden Observatory)
Mirjana Povic (Space Science and Geospatial Institute, Ethiopia, and Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia, Spain)
Chair of LOC: None (None)



1. Astronomy with small and middle-sized telescopes in Africa.
- Recent situation of small and middle-class ground-based telescopes in Africa.
- The impact of astronomical infrastructure on African socio-economic and environmental development
- The effect of small and middle-sized telescopes for outreach and education in Africa.
2. Protecting existing observatories and dark skies in Africa.
3. Egyptian Large Optical Telescope (ELOT).
4. Site testing campaigns for small and middle-sized telescopes.
5. Science goals for small and middle-sized telescopes.



Astronomy was deeply rooted in Africa. A megalithic construction tracking celestial events like the summer solstice was built in Nabta Playa (Egypt) 7000 years ago. Four millennia B.C., Egyptians measured the positions of stars to align the Giza pyramids with the four cardinal points. In Mali, the Dogon incorporated the astronomical lunar calendar in their culture and traditions. Old Ethiopian manuscripts include descriptions of celestial objects and measurements of their movements based on astronomical observations. From the 9th to the 16th century, Arab scholars were outstanding in astronomy. For example, the Egyptian astronomer Ibn Yunus improved Ptolemy’s calculations for the planets’ motions and Ibn al-Banna al-Marrakushi (1256-1321) born in Marrakech was the first to use the word almanac to designate an astronomical and meteorological table. While Africa had a strong and renowned heritage in astronomy, its position gradually receded after the use of telescopes by Galileo for scientific observations in 1608 in Europe. In the following centuries, Africa could not reconnect with its strong background in astronomy, leading to a small African astronomical community, often isolated from the rest of the scientific community.
This situation is now changing. For decades, astronomy in Africa was limited to South Africa, where the British erected telescopes from 1820 onwards. The first distance measurement to a star was obtained at what is now the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in 1832. In the late 19th century, it was the world leader for astronomical photography and star cataloguing. South Africa now hosts the 11-m SALT, the largest single-mirror optical telescope in the world.

During the past century, academic research in astronomy has clearly been rising in other African countries with observatories and astrophysics departments in several of them. For example, Egypt’s National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics (NRIAG) was established in 1839 as a Royal observatory at Bollak, then moved to Abbasia on the year1868 before it was moved to the current location at Helwan in 1903, making it the oldest research institute in North Africa. NRIAG hosted the Reynolds 30inch telescope by which Hally comet in 1910 and the planet Pluto in 1930 had been observed. The Astronomy department at NRIAG is the largest in Egypt and the Arab world, and also home for the largest telescope in these regions, the 1.9m in Kottamia. Erected in 1963, the Kottamia Astronomical Observatory (KAO) has imaging, spectroscopic, polarimetric and spectro-polarimetric capabilities. Another example is Morocco, where astronomy has experienced remarkable growth over the past 30 years. The Oukaimeden Observatory has made world-class discoveries and is running various projects and collaborations, including a remote 0.5m-class telescope for a survey of small solar system bodies, the 0.6m TRAPPIST-North telescope for the detection of transiting planets and characterization of comets and asteroids, and the 0.5m wide-field telescope for space debris and near-Earth objects.
Another number of African countries are rapidly developing their own astronomy programs and instruments. Currently, Ethiopia is hosting two twin 1-m telescopes close to Addis Ababa, and it started site testing to install a world-class optical/near- infrared telescope at Abuna Yosef mountain (> 4000m) around Lalibela in the north. The Ethiopian plan is to use its dark sky, high mountains, and geographical location close to the equator to become one of the astronomical sites for attracting national and international communities to install different telescopes and instruments. Similarly, Ghana as part of the SKA has its 32m radio telescope, 7 other African countries participate in SKA under the leadership of South Africa and will have further radio telescopes on their grounds, Burkina Faso has plans to establish a small optical observatory with 1m telescope that has been moved from Chile, several radio astronomy initiatives are there in Nigeria, and many more. In addition, MSc/PhD programs in astronomy are running now in many African countries, including Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia, Rwanda, Sudan, etc.

Searching Astrophysics Data System (ADS) for the number of refereed research papers that have been published in the field of astronomy during the period 1950 – 2022 for South Africa, Egypt, and Morocco it has been found that these three countries have published 9521, 1786, and 426, respectively. These numbers indicate that the size of the telescope(s) in the country determines the amount of published research.

Because of urban extension and the decision of the political leadership to construct a new administrative capital, Kottamia Observatory in Egypt will suffer from light pollution which will affect its operation for astronomical observations in the coming 5-6 years. As a result, NRIAG decided to build another bigger telescope which is envisioned to be 6.5-m, the Egyptian Large Optical Telescope (ELOT).

The aforementioned new astronomical infrastructure and programs, along with the proposed FM, will have positive impacts for the African development, for strengthening research and international collaborations, for strengthening African collaborations and therefore minimizing the efforts and resources through collaborations for maximizing the outcomes. It should be mentioned here that the African countries hosting optical telescopes have recently an initiative to build a network of all currently available optical telescopes in Africa. Talks already started in April 2022 by organizing a workshop that has various discussions about that. Our proposed FM will be important for bringing a deeper discussion in that aspect.

As Cape Town was selected to host the IAU General Assembly in 2024 which is considered as a recognition by the global astronomical community of the investments and efforts that Africa has been making in growing the discipline of astronomy in Africa, we are proposing this FM to shed the light, pay the attention and get the support of the astronomical community about ELOT and similar small and middle-sized telescopes (1-6 m) that can be built in the African continent. This will also aid in defining the science cases that can be exploited from such telescope sizes and will enrich the outreach and educational activities of schools, universities, observatories, museums, science centers and astronomical societies across the African continent.

Proceedings editors:
1. Yosry Azzam (NRIAG, Egypt)
2. Zouhair Benkhaldoun (Oukaimeden Observatory, Morocco)
3. Mirjana Povic (Space Science and Geospatial Institute, Ethiopia, and Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia, Spain)