UN/ESA Workshops on Basic Space Science (1991-1996)


As part of the activities of the United Nations Programme on Space Applications, the Programme has organized a series of annual Workshops on Basic Space Science that focus on planetary exploration and astronomy. The Workshops have been held in India (1991) for Asia and the Pacific, Costa Rica and Colombia (1992) for Latin America and the Caribbean, Nigeria (1993) for Africa, and Egypt (1994) for Western Asia. As the follow-up project of the Workshop held in India (1991), a 45cm Cassegrain Goto telescope was donated by Japan to Sri Lanka. At the time of the Workshop in India, Japan had already provided similar telescopes to Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand.

As part of the inauguration of the telescope facility at the Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Modern Technologies, the United Nations, the Government of Sri Lanka, the European Space Agency, and the Arthur C. Clarke Centre, co-sponsored the most recent Workshop on Basic Space Science: From Small Telescopes to Space Missions, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from 11 to 14 January 1996. The theme of this Workshop focused on research and education with telescopes of the class <1m and their automation and worldwide networking. The Workshop was attended by 74 astronomers and space scientists from 25 countries.

Proceedings started on the morning of Thursday, January 11, 1996, with an Inauguration Session, at which addresses were presented by the Minister of Science, Technology and Human Resources Development of Sri Lanka, Hon. Bernard Soysa, and responded to by Dr. N. Jasentuliyana, Deputy to the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Vienna, Austria. Various other dignitaries and official representatives also spoke at this opening, among them the Patron of the Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Modern Technologies, Dr. A.C. Clarke, on future visions on space travel and the Director-General of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science of Japan, Dr. R. Akiba, on Japan's astronomy space missions.

The afternoon Session of Friday, January 12, 1996, was reserved for an Inauguration Ceremony, at which a 45cm Goto Cassegrain telescope was donated to the Minister of Science, Technology and Human Resources Development of Sri Lanka by the Ambassador of Japan to Sri Lanka. This telescope is now the heart of an astronomical telescope facility on the roof of a new building of the Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Modern Technologies. The telescope is equipped with a 45cm reflector, photoelectric photometer, spectrograph, photometric camera, and a computer system.

The Workshop was divided into the following key subject areas: research and education with telescopes of the class <1m; telescope projects, robotic telescopes, and telescope networking; the solar challenge: from eclipse to neutrinos; binary stars: observing with <1m telescopes; in quest of the Big Bang; and data archiving and astronomical software packages.

Preceding and following the inauguration of the telescope facility, scientific sessions were devoted to the use of this class of telescopes for research and education in astronomy. Although the telescope was designed primarily for photometric observational studies of variable stars, it also allows for the observation of comets and asteroids. It also offers the possibility of studying atmospheric, interplanetary, and interstellar phenomena. Accordingly, presentations on these topics were made by A.K. BAGCHI (Oman), N. BOCHKAREV (Russia), K.P.S. CHANDANA JAYARATNE (Sri Lanka), S.D.P.J. DAMPEGAMA (Sri Lanka), G.H.P. DHARMARATNA (Sri Lanka), T. GEHRELS (USA), B. HIDAYAT (Indonesia), M. ILYAS (Malaysia), R. JAYAWARDHANA (USA), M. KITAMURA (Japan), R.K. KOCHHAR (India), P. KOEHLER (Germany), T. KOGURE (Japan), P. MARTINEZ (South Africa), M.A. MOSALLAM SHALTOUT (Egypt), B.M. SORIANO (Philippines), D. STEEL (Australia), and S.D. WIRAMIHARDJA (Indonesia). Some of these speakers emphasized that such telescopes can be used for training programmes for young Sri Lankan research scientists such as Ms. DILKUSHI DE ALWIS and Mr. R.A.S. SARAJ GUNESEKARA of the Arthur C. Clarke Centre. Other speakers focused on the fact that a network of telescopes of this class, regional or worldwide, could form an even more powerful astronomical tool (F.R. QUERCI, France; J. SOLDAN, Czech Republic; B. WARNER, South Africa). Four astronomers played an instrumental role in preparing the scientific settings for the telescope facility in Sri Lanka: N.C. WICKRAMASINGHE (United Kindom) developed the proposal for the telescope facility; M. KITAMURA (Japan) and T.KOGURE (JAPAN) oversaw the whole process of the establishment of this facility; H.S.P. DE ALWIS (Sri Lanka) designed the housing and sliding roof for the telescope; and F.R. QUERCI (France) provided a fully developed example for networking and automating telescopes, titled Oriental Robotic Telescope Network, that is currently being implemented in several countries in Asia and the Middle East. As a result of this Session it was decided to develop a sample research/education programme for telescopes of the class <1m that can be used in the region of Asia and the Pacific and that can be transferred to other regions for the same purpose as might be appropriate. This programme will be developed under the guidance of R.K. KOCHHAR (India) and will be published by the United Nations.

All past four UN/ESA Workshops on Basic Space Science lead to follow-up projects pursued under the umbrella of the United Nations. One Session of the Sri Lanka Workshop offered the participants the opportunity being informed about the status of implementation of four such follow-up projects (out of five in total; no new developments have been reported about the feasibility study of an Inter-African Astronomical Observatory and Science Park on the Gamsberg in Namibia). M.C. PINEDA DE CARIAS (Honduras) pleased the Workshop participants with the good news that the Observatory at the University of Honduras is now fully operating and that the Observatory staff is taking the lead to develop astronomy in Central America. S. TORRES (Colombia) informed about the progress of the Galactic Emission Mapping (GEM) Project that is a major international collaborative effort to establish an astronomical observatory in Colombia. M.S. MIKHAIL (Egypt) and P. KOEHLER (Germany) elaborated on the progressing work to refurbish the 1.88m Kottamia telescope in Egypt which is the largest telescope in Western Asia. With the new optics integrated, first light is to be expected in the first half of 1997. M.A. MOSALLAM SHALTOUT (Egypt) delivered good news to the Workshop that a team of Egyptian scientists, collaborating with American, Russian, and European scientists, have begun working on the design, building and testing of a drill for obtaining subsurface samples on the Mars, which will be part of the Russian Mars 98 mission. This follow-up project is coordinated by The Planetary Society, a co-sponsor of the series of Workshops on Basic Space Science. Looking into a bright future of astronomy in Asia for the next millennium, Y. CHU (China) presented a proposal to built a new spectroscopic survey telescope with an aperture of 4m, called the Large Sky Area Multi-Object Fibre Spectroscopy Project (LAMOST). To outline the future of the Basic Space Science Workshops, R. SCHWARTZ (Germany) gave an overview about the research programme in radioastronomy at present time and in the future as pursued by the Max-Planck-Institute of Radioastronomy at Bonn, Germany, Which is the host of the forthcoming Workshop on Basic Space Science from 9-13 September 1996.

A large percentage of stars in the Universe are part of double and multiple star systems. Extrinsic and intrinsic variable star research is one of the most important branches in astronomy and astrophysics. Emphasizing the role of telescopes of the class <1m, M. KITAMURA (Japan), K.-CH. LEUNG (USA), B. SOONTHOORNTHUM (Thailand), and D.-S. ZHAI (China) lectured on most recent insights from observational studies of these stars.

Two parallel Sessions on Saturday, January 13, 1996, left their participants with more questions than answers on the topics covered by the Sessions. However, both sessions have shown that any established theory or model in astronomy and physics leaves (or should leave) enough room for alternative thinking by addressing the shortcomings of the respective theory or model. One of the parallel Sessions looked first at the beautiful photographs of the solar eclipse of 24 October 1995 observed in Phan Thiet, Vietnam, by the recently established astronomical research group of N. VAN NHA (Vietnam) and N. DINH HUAN (Vietnam). Secondly, the session addressed the mystery of the solar neutrino problem in summarizing the results of the four operating solar neutrino detectors (Homestake, Gran Sasso, Baksan, Kamiokande), comparing these results with the predictions of the standard solar model, and theorizing about the possibilities of a neutrino having a mass or a solar neutrino flux varying over time (D. BASU, Trinidad and Tobago; H.J. HAUBOLD, United Nations; S. MASOOD, Pakistan; G.T. ZATSEPIN, Russia). The other parallel Session was devoted to alternatives for the Big Bang model in terms of the quasi-steady-state cosmology (H. ARP, Germany; J.V. NARLIKAR, India; N.C. WICKRAMASINGHE, United Kingdom) and to the quest for the basic building blocks of the Universe, the galaxies, and how they evolve (K. CHAMCHAM, Morocco; S. TORRES, Colombia; W. WAMSTEKER, European Space Agency). Big Bang insiders made the suggestion that an updated a Colombo manifest.

The final session of the Workshop, held on the afternoon of Saturday, January 13, 1996, followed the tradition established in the past Workshops by addressing important topics in astronomy through special presentations and by adopting observations and recommendations made by participants in the course of Workshop deliberations. M.R. PEREZ (USA) presented a study on astronomical software packages used by astronomers and space scientists around the world and provided information where this software is available free of charge on the World Wide Web. W. WAMSTEKER (European Space Agency) continued to address the availability of astronomical data archives which are maintained by many space agencies around the world and can be accessed through electronic file transfer. This topic has been discussed in all Basic Space Science Workshops and is considered to remain a priority item to assure that astronomers from all nations can benefit from astronomical space missions (and ground-based facilities) by analyzing the data provided by worldwide networks of data centres.

In the past Workshops, organized in four regions on Earth, a framework of observations and recommendations for the worldwide development of astronomy and space science has been developed through participants of the respective Workshops. At the Workshop in Sri Lanka, the participants felt, that in a world, where cooperation on a global scale becomes inevitable, a scientifically and technologically attractive project in the field of astronomy and space science would be supplied by a World Space Observatory, preferably for the ultraviolet. With this ambitious recommendation the Workshop concluded.

Last not least the highlight of the Workshop was the interaction and dedication of the participants from five regions of the world which was stimulated by the great hospitality, excellent facilities, and the beautiful surroundings extended and arranged by the local organizers of the Workshop. These included the inauguration of the telescope at the Arthur C. Clarke Centre, receptions, a banquet, a cultural performance, and an excursion to Kandy, a location of pilgrimage for Buddhism. The participants of the Workshop are not going to forget Sri Lanka, a pearl in the Indian Ocean, and the people living there. It is difficult to believe that all of that above happened within four days.

This series of Workshops demonstrates that the stimulation of nationally supported science activities plays an important role for developing countries to learn about, and benefit from the advances in space science and technology made by many space faring nations. The follow-up project of the Workshop in India (1991) is almost completed. One of the follow-up projects of the Workshop in Colombia and Costa Rica (1992), the establishment of an Observatory in Honduras, has been implemented. The participants of five Workshops are looking forward to see the establishment of an Observatory in Colombia, of the Inter-African Astronomical Observatory and Science Park in Namibia, the inauguration of the refurbished Kottamia telescope in Egypt, and the launch of the Mars 98 mission with the drill from Egypt on board. All of this will be part of the Workshop deliberations in Germany this year. The United Nations is currently preparing a booklet on Developing Astronomy and Space Science Worldwide, that contains contributions from many participants of the past Workshops and which will be used to assess in-depth the accomplishments of the series of UN/ESA Workshops on Basic Space Science over a period of seven years.

In Sri Lanka, participants indicated the interest to see future Basic Space Science Workshops hosted by Honduras (for Latin America and the Caribbean), South Africa (for Africa), Morocco (for Western Asia), and Malaysia (for Asia and the Pacific). The United Nations has also been informed that because of the good example of the establishment of a telescope in Sri Lanka, a number of other member States have strongly indicated interest to establish a similar telescope facility, among them Ghana, Nigeria, Colombia, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam.