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WKU professor continues efforts to boost astronomy in South Africa

Dr. Charles McGruder, the William McCormack Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at WKU, is back in South Africa continuing his efforts to broaden support for astronomy and the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope project.

Dr. Charles McGruder

Earlier this month, Dr. McGruder and two other scientists traveled to several South African cities to seek support for the SKA project. South Africa is competing against Australia to host what would be the world’s most powerful radio telescope as part of $2.3 billion project that would comprise 3,000 separate satellite dishes.

“South Africa is really moving forward with astronomy but with limited resources they have put the money they have on areas where they can make a bang and one area is astronomy,” Dr. McGruder said. “The reason they chose astronomy is their geographic position in the Southern Hemisphere allows them to see stars we can’t in the Northern Hemisphere.”

Accompanying Dr. McGruder on that trip were Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman, a NASA astronaut who helped repair the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993, and Dr. Robert Williams, president of the International Astronomical Union and former director of the Space Telescope Science Institute.

“The response from our audiences was really excellent,” Dr. McGruder said of the trip across South Africa. “There’s strong interest in astronomy in South Africa. Our purpose is to generate more.”

Additional trips are planned to other countries throughout the continent of Africa, he said.

On his current visit, which will continue into mid-December, Dr. McGruder is seeking support for the SKA project and is continuing his work through a Kellogg Foundation grant to increase the number of black astronomers in South Africa.

To address that need, a special school – the National Astrophysics and Space Sciences Program (NASSP) – was created to train South African students. In 2008, there were no black South Africans in the program but now one-third of the students are black, Dr. McGruder said.

“We consider it to be a major success but there’s still a long way to go,” he said.

Dr. McGruder also has been working to develop an African Astronomical Society, which should be launched in 2011.

Contact: Dr. Charles McGruder at charles.mcgruder@wku.edu

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