Eclipse restores astronomy to Turkana after 2,000 years
Wednesday, August 7, 2013 - 00:00
BY JOHN MUCHANGI
Turkana is looking to restore its forgotten reputation not as the cradle of mankind, but the birthplace of the science of stars in Kenya.
The sunbaked county will on November 3 host the climax of a hybrid solar eclipse – one of the rarest in history.
The eclipse will stride through four African countries, but astronomers across the world will pitch tents in Turkana for the real esoteric experience.
“Astronomy has finally come home!” says Susan Murabana of the African Astronomical Society (Afas).
The organisation says Turkana offers the best view of the eclipse in Africa.
Murabana explains: “There's a 75 per cent chance of clear skies. The location is also beautiful and we'll also have a chance to see Saturn and Mercury.”
There is evidence Cushites in Turkana were already studying stars in 300 BC, more than a thousand years before Galileo Galilei made a name for himself.
Scientists and tour operators hope the event will help them hammer this point home.
Hybrid eclipses are rare and the next one is 2023 but it will not be visible in Africa.
November's hybrid eclipse, where the sun will be completely covered by the moon, will be the longest this century, astronomers say.
Murabana, who handles marketing and communication for Afas, says only northern Kenyans will witness the eclipse – for 15 seconds.
But numerous tour companies are already signing up tourists from across the world for the scientific excursion.
Afas has teamed up with Nairobi branch of Rotary Club for a four-day tour of Turkana.
Renown African American astronomer Hakeem Oluseyi is leading a team of astronomers from the Florida Institute of Technology and Stanford University for the day.
The University of Nairobi's Prof Simiyu Wandiba will also lead a team of students and astronomy enthusiasts.
Scientists hope the activities will also rekindle interest in this field, which involves the study of the sun, moon, stars, planets and other objects and phenomena in space.
“Astronomy is one of the the oldest sciences in Africa,” says Murabana.
In fact, Turkana – already known as the cradle of mankind – probably has the oldest scientific site known in Africa.
Astronomers now believe their science is finally coming home.
In Namoratunga area, where many enthusiasts will camp in November, scientists in 1978 found stone alignments with unmistakable astronomical overtones.
The 19 large basalt pillars are are dated at approximately 300 BC.
Scientists believe the stones align with the movements of the seven constellations corresponding to the 12-month 354-day lunar calendar of Cushites like Boranas.
This means even before Galileo Galileo made a name “recently” in 1564, the Boranas had already studied the skies for hundreds of years.
Treasurer of Nairobi's Rotary Club Faith Mamicha says interest in astronomy is widespread even in modern day Kenya.
“Until recently there was no body to unite the enthusiasts,” she says.
Mamicha regularly leads school children in annual trip to Nasa's facilities in Florida and Texas.
“Many of them tell me they no longer want to be pilots but astronauts,” she says.
Mamicha will lead at least 40 people on motorbikes to Namoratunga and Kalokol village in Turkana for the eclipse. A few others will take overland trucks or flights.
“The money we raise will go to charity. For instance we'll pay fees for children in the area.”
The tourists will leave Nairobi on October 31 and return on November 4.
Scientists see the rare eclipse as godsend. “There's a lot of money in astronomy once the government gets in it,” Murabana says.
Murabana hopes the event will unite astronomy enthusiasts scattered across the country.
She also organises the Amateur Astronomical Society. Members meet twice every month on Lenana Road in Nairobi.
“Astronomy is the among the few scientific fields where professionals and amateurs work together,” she says.
Much of astronomy's groundwork is, by nature, observational. And space being a big place, the experts cannot watch all of it. So they rely on amateurs.
Murabana, also a part-time astronomy lecturer, says the field is slowly expanding into popular consciousness in Kenya.
“As a professional course, it's in infancy but growing fast. We are all interested in astronomy because we all look at the skies many times and ask questions,” she says.
The association recently received a planetarium from Perot Museum in Texas, and some observation equipment.
They are also partnering with the University of Nairobi.
UoN's first batch of students in astronomy will graduate this year.
“The mounting of this course is meant to be the basis for serious capacity building to attain the critical mass of expertise needed for the development of space science in Kenya,” says head of physics department Dr Kenneth Amiga.
Kenya is further engaged in some joint space science activities with the Italian government through the San Marco Project in Malindi.
The country is among four African countries that will host radio telescopes that will operate together with the world's most powerful radio telescope being built near Cape Town.
Astronomer Prof Paul Baki, head of pure and applied science at the Technical University of Kenya, recently told Voice of America they are looking for land to build the Kenyan bit.
He says they need about one square kilometre of land that is free from electronic interference.
“You need a radio quiet zone that is an area where you don’t get TV signals, you don’t get mobile phone signals, and so forth,” he told VOA.
Murabana says these developments show the future is bright in Africa. Astronomy is probably getting back to where it all began.