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Africa Millimetre Telescope planetarium team receive Royal Astronomical Society Medal for outreach

Date of news: 12 January 2024

The mobile planetarium team of the Africa Millimetre Telescope project is honoured by the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) with the 2024 Annie Maunder Medal for Outreach. The mobile planetarium is used to bring immersive and interactive astronomy engagement to a diverse spectrum of the Namibian public and help to bridge the gap between scientists and the public as well as top-level government. For these reasons the medal was awarded to the internationally operated project.

The RAS commends the innovative nature and potential of the project: “In spite of magnificent night skies, the wider public in Namibia has little knowledge or appreciation of the astronomical research done in their country. This means that the potential of astronomy to inspire and stimulate interest in “blue skies research” is being missed. The mobile planetarium project of the Africa Millimetre Telescope (AMT) is helping to realise this potential by bringing an immersive astronomical experience to schools across Namibia.”

AMT 28 feb23 HIRES Barbara Kerkhof-7787

Kindergarten children enter the AMT mobile planetarium with the AMT team at Okaukuejo, Namibia. Credit: Studio Arnhem/Barbara Kerkhof

The Africa Millimetre Telescope project is an international cooperation between Radboud University and the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands, the University of Namibia, Oxford University in the UK, and the University of Turku in Finland. The first millimetre-wave radio telescope on African soil will be built in the Khomas Highlands of Namibia and is designed to expand the Event Horizon Telescope network, which captured the first ever image of a black hole, released in 2019.

The mobile planetarium is the flagship outreach project of the AMT collaboration. It is modelled on the successful mobile planetarium project managed by the Dutch Research School for Astronomy (NOVA) in The Netherlands. Marc Klein Wolt of Radboud University and AMT project director: “Due to Namibia’s large size, few scientific outreach programs reach all corners of the country, resulting in little interest in science in general amongst the wider population”. Klein Wolt continues: “A mobile planetarium is portable; all equipment fits in the back of a car. So we thought, why not bring a planetarium to Namibia and help all Namibians benefit from our project and actually become a part of it.”

A mobile planetarium is an effective tool for astronomy education and public engagement. The night sky is projected onto the inside of the inflatable dome via a powerful projector. State-of-the-art planetarium software enables the operator to ‘fly’ through the universe and show a myriad of astronomical phenomena.

The AMT Mobile Planetarium project is a combined effort of an energetic team of University of Namibia (UNAM) students and staff, fuelled by technical support from the Radboud University and NOVA. The team is diverse in nature and comprises project leaders, technical experts and student presenters. The AMT Mobile Planetarium project has reached an extremely diverse audience across Namibia from kindergarten children to university students; from rural school children to Heads of State. In its first year of operations, the project visited more than 70 locations and conducted more than 400 planetarium shows, which were attended by more than 10,600 Namibians. The planetarium project now receives extended sponsorship in Namibia. The local support enables the expansion of the team with new student presenters in 2024. The goal is to reach all learners at least once during their school career.

Lott Frans, AMT Fellow and the first astrophysics PhD student in Namibia: “For Namibia to play an active part in such exciting science at the highest level is thrilling! We are honoured to be a part of the team and to contribute to equipping our young people with the necessary skills to keep our place at that scientific level.” Frans continues: “Projects such as the AMT Mobile Planetarium enthuse learners from a young age for science and enable capacity building to tackle the big global challenges for the future. It is such a diverse and exciting way to learn, and we are honoured the RAS recognises our efforts with this award. It really means a lot to the team and to Namibia.”

2023 AMT Planetarium Team_v2

AMT Planetarium Team: Michael Backes, Zandré Duvenhage, Heino Falcke, Marc Klein Wolt, Amanda Schut, Eli Kasai, Hans-Werner Matthaei, Lott Frans, Hiiko Katjaita, Sigrid Shilunga, Queen “Delight” Namene, Francisco Macucule, Hélène Honsbein, Emilia Iiyambo, Victoria Nakafingo, Namasiku Simasiku, Joanna Holt, Maaike Pierik

About the Royal Astronomical Society medals

In January, the RAS recognises outstanding research in astrophysics and geophysics through several awards, medals and prizes as part of its remit to support and encourage scientists working in the fields of astronomy and geophysics. Some are aimed at young scientists, while others recognise many years of dedicated service. The medals are presented to the laureates during the National Astronomy Meeting later in the year.

Annie Scott Dill Maunder (1868-1947) was one of the first women to be made a Fellow of the RAS. The medal was launched in 2016, as part of the Society's celebration of the centenary of the admission of women to Fellowship. The 2023 award went to the Black in Astro movement.

Contact information

For further information, please contact Marc Klein Wolt  or team Science communication via +31 24 361 6000 or media@ru.nl.