ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopia unveiled Friday the first phase of a space exploration program, which includes East Africa’s largest observatory to promote astronomy research in the region. “The optical astronomical telescope is mainly intended for astronomy and astrophysics observation research,” observatory Director Solomon Belay said.
The observatory, which will formally be opened Saturday, boasts two telescopes, each 1 meter wide, to see “extra planets, different types of stars, the Milky Way, and deep galaxies,” Solomon added.
Ethiopian-Saudi business tycoon Mohammad al-Amoudi funds the $3.4 million observatory, run by the Ethiopian Space Science Society.
The observatory, 3,200 meters above sea level in the lush Entoto Mountains on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, is an ideal location because of its minimal cloud cover, moderate winds and low humidity, experts said.
When established in 2004, ESSS was labeled as the “Crazy People’s Club,” according to the group, but has gained credibility in the past decade with astronomy courses introduced at universities and winning increased political support.
The Ethiopian government is set to launch a space policy in coming years.
Solomon said the group originally faced skeptics in Ethiopia and abroad, who questioned whether space exploration was a wise use of resources in one of Africa’s poorest economies, plagued in the past by chronic famine and unrest.
But Solomon said promoting science was key to the development in Ethiopia, today one of Africa’s fastest growing economies largely based on agriculture.
“If the economy is strongly linked with science, then we can transform a poor way of agriculture into industrialization and into modern agriculture,” he said.
The ESSS is now looking to open a second observatory 4,200 meters above sea level in the mountainous northern town of Lalibela, also the site of the largest cluster of Ethiopia’s ancient rock-hewn churches.
Photographs from the ESSS show scientists with testing equipment determining the best site for the next telescope on the green and remote peaks, as local villagers wrapped in traditional white blankets watch on curiously sitting outside their thatch hut homes.
Solomon hopes to boost “astronomy tourism” among space fans interested in coming to one of the least likely countries in the world to boast a space program, an added economic benefit.
The country will also launch its first satellite in the next three years, ESSS said, to study meteorology and boost telecommunications.
Ethiopia is not the first African nation to look to the skies; South Africa has its own National Space Agency, and in 2009, the African Union announced plans to establish The African Space Agency.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, has also called for a continent-wide space program.
Solomon said while the next several years would be about boosting research and data collection, along with promoting a strong local and regional interest in astronomy, he was not ruling out sending an Ethiopian into space one day.
“Hopefully we will,” he said.