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Searching for answers afield

How do we explore outer space?

For thousands of years, astronomy has been revolutionising the way mankind thinks about itself. And what is more, it has always been a pacemaker, driver and indicator of technological development. These are just two of many reasons why astronomy is one of the seven focal points of the German-South African Year of Science 2012/2013.

When did light enter the cosmic darkness? How do galaxies and stars come into being? Are there any planets similar to the Earth outside of our solar system? Where is Einstein's theory of relativity stretched to its limits? These are all questions that affect the way we look at ourselves as human beings. They are questions so universal in nature that they can be researched only within the framework of extensive international cooperation.

Although astronomy has a long and highly successful academic tradition in Germany, the conditions for exploring the heavens in any practical way are unfavourable there. Apart from its changeable weather, Germany, like the whole of western Europe, is too densely populated and has too much disruptive light, too much air pollution and – at least for modern radio telescopy – too much radio interference.

The situation in huge areas of South Africa is completely different. Not only does it provide a view of the southern sky, and therefore the centre of the Milky Way; the country also boasts near-ideal conditions for investigating outer space – for example in the Karoo semi-desert a few hours' drive from Cape Town. The air there is dry, and because the area hardly has any human inhabitants it has no nocturnal light, no air pollution, no mobile networks and no radio interference caused by broadcast stations.

The opportunities that this presents have been recognised by the South African government, which extensively supports and funds both astronomical research projects and university education in this field. As a result, South Africa is now one of the most ambitious countries for astronomical research in the southern hemisphere.

One of several projects in which German and South African astronomers are collaborating is the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the biggest individual optical telescope in the southern hemisphere, in whose operation the University of Göttingen is directly involved and which has been providing new pictures of the southern sky since 2005.

The most spectacular astronomical project in the world at the moment, however, is almost certainly the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA for short. "SKA is a gigantic radio telescope consisting of up to 3,000 parabolic antennae which will be around 100 times more powerful than any of its predecessor devices. It is the largest and most ambitious astronomic research project currently being conducted and has been planned by astronomers from all over the world for more than a decade," says Prof. Dr. Matthias Steinmetz, Scientific Director at the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics in Potsdam. Upon its completion, which is scheduled for 2022, SKA should be the largest radio telescope facility in the world – and scientists will be eager to use it to eavesdrop on up to 13 billion years of the universe's history.

The debate regarding the location of SKA has been concluded, and it has been announced that the antennas will be built in South Africa and eight additional Southern African states as well as in Australia and New Zealand. At the same time, South Africa is pressing ahead with other astronomical research projects.  One of these is MeerKAT, a smaller precursor of SKA, although until the latter's completion it will itself be the biggest and most efficient radio telescope in the southern hemisphere. MeerKAT is already at the development stage and is scheduled for completion in 2016. German astronomers – from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn – are heavily involved in this project too, for example in the fields of software and instrument development.

What all these projects have in common is that they require far more than just the astronomical equipment in the narrow sense. The SKA, for example, will require a data transfer capacity that exceeds the current level of Internet traffic in Europe. To achieve this it will need computers of maximum efficiency, data networks, and reliable ways of generating electricity in a decentralised way. All this demonstrates clearly that astronomy can not only provide new findings about outer space; it can also help to develop important technical and scientific innovations.