UNITED NATIONS/EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY WORKSHOPS ON BASIC SPACE SCIENCE

Lagos, Nigeria, 1993

The Development on an Inter-African Astronomical Observatory and Science Park on the Gamsberg in Namibia

Annual UN/ESA Workshops on Basic Space Science to strengthen the development of astronomy worldwide are part of the United Nations Programme on Space Applications since 1991. During the Workshops scientists from developing and industrialized countries are discussing in depth ideas for new collaborative initiatives in the field of basic space science. By opening the floor to the scientists, these meetings become an ideal forum where key issues that impede progress are identified and proposals are formulated. The contents of these discussions and the proposals are collected in a set of recommendations and observations which are part of a report published as a United Nations General Assembly document and brought to the attention of the member States of the United Nations. During the Workshop in Lagos, Nigeria, a proposal for an Inter-African Astronomical Observatory and Science Park on the Gamsberg in Namibia caught the attention of the Workshop participants and received full support from the United Nations.

Because of both its latitude and longitude, Southern Africa can make a unique contribution to astronomy. Certain time-critical phenomena and 24 hour coverage can be obtained only with observatories in all continents (excluding Antarctica) south of the equator.

The Gamsberg has been identified as one of the most suitable sites for an observatory in Southern Africa. It is a table-mountain 120 km south west of Windhoek above the Namib desert at an altitude of 2350 m above sea level. It experiences a large number of cloudless nights, a dark sky, excellent atmospheric transparency and low humidity. Comparative test measurements have demonstrated that it is of just as good quality as the well-known astronomical sites in Chile. The mountain top is owned by the German Max-Planck-Society and a small astronomical station was established there in the 70s.

Besides astronomy the mountain is of considerable interest to other scientific disciplines such as cosmic ray physics, atmospheric research and meteorology, biology, geology, etc. The huge plateau of about 250 hectares offers enough space for various independent installations.

The Max-Planck-Institute for Astronomy is trying to initiate development aiming at a new scientific centre on the Gamsberg. But this can only be achieved with international support and collaboration. South Africa has expressed an interest in operating the astronomical observatory on behalf on the international community involved. The ideal solution would be an inter-African Science park. The Government of Namibia as well as the recently founded Windhoek University are very much in favor of this project.

The provision of this facility is seen as an important focus for the development of basic space science in African countries. It is possible that once the facility is initiated and the infrastructure in place it will also be attractive to northern hemisphere countries, especially those wishing to establish facilities in the southern hemisphere.