Lee Annamalai of the CSIR says the newly-developed telescopes will be 100% South African. "In preparation of the International Year of Astronomy, we want to give South African learners and, depending on funds, perhaps school-going children on the African continent, exposure to space science, "says Annamalai. "These very same children and graduates are the scientists and inventors of the future; we need to increase our efforts of convincing them to pursue careers in SET."
"Our objective is for every school in South Africa to have a telescope in the next five years," says Annamalai. "We are working closely with members of the South African Amateur Astronomers Society to learn from their experiences and get guidance in selecting the best design."
According to Annamalai, the prototypes will be completed later this year. "The telescopes will be in kit form and have South African parts. We will aim for better image quality than existing systems by focussing on the quality of materials in components and smart design," he says. Three mechanical engineering interns, who will help with the assembly of these telescopes, are set to join the team. It is hoped that they will use the expertise gained at the CSIR to start their own enterprises.
"Space has always captured the imagination of man - a feat that would not be possible without an optical instrument," says Annamalai. "That's why we are developing the telescopes as kits to be assembled by students and teachers before use. They will gain an appreciation that optical components are making space observation possible."
He also says that the support his group has received from the DST and a few of the local industry participants is overwhelming. "I am extremely excited and the important thing about this project is that, until now, few South African made systems exist that put optics in the hands of the children of this country," he says.
Annamalai refers to the excellence awards function at the CSIR two years ago where Science and Technology Minister Dr Mosibudi Mangena said, "When I look outside my window I see hundreds of cars driving by, but there's not even one 100% designed in South Africa by South Africans. Similarly cell phones are prevalent, but none were designed here. It is high time we design our own things such as a cell phone," joking at the time that it could be called the `Mangena phone".
"That message resonated with me and started the seed of an idea and perhaps we are one step closer to realising Dr Mangena's vision," Annamalai says enthusiastically.
Space optical payload engineering is a growing area within the optronics research group at the CSIR.
The group is well known for initiatives include the development of:
- the Cyclone long-range day and night zoom camera, which uses digital sensor technology and image processing resulting in extreme long-range surveillance
- an ultra-lightweight 600 mm special operations lens, which uses space optomechanical design techniques and strong lightweight materials for surveillance operations
- an infrared optical and laser-based countermeasure system, which rapidly detects and counters infrared man-portable missile threats typically used by terrorists and insurgents to attack transport aircraft during peace-support and humanitarian missions.