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Iono - Behind the Bulletins

Astrophysics Research with Namibian participation coined “2017 Breakthrough of the Year” – twice!

Following the first detection of Gravitational Waves by the LIGO Collaboration in 2016, the key researchers behind the project were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in October 2017. Despite what one may think, this was the very successful and well-recognized end of a long (scientific) journey. It was, indeed, only the beginning of the new era of Multi-Messenger Astronomy.
 
Astronomy, as everyone knows, uses visual light, ever since Galileo first used a telescope to point it at the stars some 400 years ago. During the last century, other forms (scientifically: wavelengths) of light like gamma rays, X-rays, Ultraviolet and Infrared radiation, as well as microwaves or, more generally, radio waves, have also been used to study the Universe. Radio telescopes are particularly en vogue in Africa as mankind‘s largest astronomical endeavour is being built on the African continent: the Square Kilometre Array, SKA. The form of light being used for astronomical observations most recently are very high energy gamma rays as observed by the High Energy Stereoscopic System (H.E.S.S.) in Namibia. After the first detection of those gamma rays in 1989, H.E.S.S., being a second generation telescope system, is operating in the Khomas Highlands since 2003 and has been awarded several scientific merits since.
 
Now that Scientists can regularly detect and pinpoint the origin of gravitational waves, which are vastly distinct from any form of light, the era of not just multi-wavelength, but even multi-messenger astronomy has truly begun. The two different messengers (light and gravitational waves) combined can reveal much deeper insights into the most violent phenomena in the Universe.
 
Exactly this happened when, on 17 August 2017, gravitational waves were detected from the collision of two ultra-dense remains of giant starts, called neutron-stars. As soon as the automatic data analysis procedures had spotted something interesting going on, a message was sent around the world to collaborating observatories to complement this gravitational wave detection with as much coverage by as many different telescopes as possible. Excitement in the international astronomy community grew even further as the Fermi-Gamma-ray Space Telescope as well as ESA's INTErnational Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory (INTEGRAL) detected a short outbreak of gamma rays (a Gamma-Ray Burst) from the same direction, about 2 seconds afterwards.
 
In an unprecedented way, more than 70 observatories around the world followed the call for co-observations, amongst them, the H.E.S.S. telescopes. Of all telescopes that cannot see a large fraction of the sky all at once, i.e. that needed to be pointed to the position determined by LIGO, the H.E.S.S. telescopes were the first to observe in the direction of the event.
 
This enormous international effort, along with the rich set of information about merging neutron-stars and their connection to gamma-ray bursts, as well as this multi-messenger observation truly being the first of its kind, made the UK Institute of Physics (IOP) journal Physics World award the international team of scientists the “Physics World 2017 Breakthrough of the Year” award on 11 December 2017. On 21 December, the multi-disciplinary and, arguably, most-renowned scientific journal in the world, Science also named the very same observation “2017 Breakthrough of the Year”.
 
These awards also particularly emphasise the collaborative nature of “big science” these days. “The explosion was easily the most studied event in the history of astronomy, with 3674 researchers from 953 institutions collaborating on a single paper summarizing the merger and its aftermath”, states Science, whereas Physics World is even more explicit in saying that the award was deliberately “given to thousands of scientists working in nearly 50 collaborations worldwide.” Further, they believe that this observation “is a shining example of how our knowledge of the universe can move forwards when people from all over the world join together with a common scientific cause.”
 
In this big international effort, Namibia was represented by 4 staff members of the Department of Physics at UNAM joined by Namibian PhD students at Humboldt University Berlin (Germany) and North-West University (SA).
 
The High Energy Stereoscopic System (H.E.S.S.) is a system of four 12 metre and one 28 metre diameter telescopes, situated in the Khomas Highlands about 120 km south-west of Windhoek. The telescopes are operated by an international collaboration of more than 250 researchers from 13 countries. The University of Namibia (UNAM) is a member of the H.E.S.S. collaboration since its inception. Currently, there are 3 Namibian PhD and 2 MSc students conducting their research in the context of H.E.S.S and gamma-ray astronomy in the Department of Physics at UNAM. Out of the more than 3,600 authors from 953 institutes of the honoured observation, 5 are based in Namibia at UNAM.

Week in Review - 27 January 2018

Namibia's high level of Gender Based Violence was once again highlighted this week as we learnt that a 25 year old woman had been shot and killed, allegedly by her boyfriend, who is a soldier based at the Osona military base, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology also revealed that they had produced a 30 minute short-film on the topic of GBV, meanwhile a farmer from the Aranos area was found guilty of having shot and killed his wife in 2010. There was good news for the country as it was reported that Walvis Bay Salt Refiners have secured a buyer in the United States of America. The Bankers Association of Namibia also announced that they were joining hands with 'Writers of Hope' and would be collecting stationery and school supplies for the less fortunate in all participating bank branches up until the culmination of their drive which will see street collections taking place in Windhoek on February 22nd.
 
South Africans, and indeed people all across the planet, were saddened on Tuesday by the news that legendary musician Hugh Masakela had died following a long battle against prostate cancer, the country also however rejoiced in the news that the world seemed to be taking a more positive view of them as good news filtered back from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and the Rand continued to show unprecedented strength against the US dollar. Court cases dominated the news this week as both Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini and Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu were put under the spotlight for their roles in the Sassa and Life Esidimini scandals respectively, meanwhile there were renewed protests at OverVaal Hoerskool and the fight against Gupta-linked corruption intensified as the Hawks conducted search and seizure operations relating to the Vrede Dairy matter. 
 
Elsewhere in Africa former international footballer George Weah was sworn in as the new president of Liberia amid high expectations of change, Gem Diamonds in Lesotho announced that they had discovered yet another large high quality diamond, and Zimbabwe's new president continued to say all the right things and impress many people while attending the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. There was bad news too though as Egypt continued its clampdown on the LGBT community, arresting another 10 people and bringing to 85 the total number reported to have been arrested since September last year, tensions continued to grow between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter's Grand Renaissance Dam project on the upper Nile river, Chad saw renewed anti-austerity unrest, and the UN expressed concern over the deaths of at least 7 people in Ethiopia.
 
Internationally the Philippines' Mount Mayon volcano continued to threaten a massive eruption while there were several earthquakes recorded across the so-called 'Ring of Fire' as well as off the coast of the United States. French prison guards extended their strike over calls for more resources, especially in light of the increased number of radical Islamists under their watch, a German nurse already serving two life sentences for murder was indicted in nearly 100 more killings, Donald Trump got serious with his 'America First' promise ahead of his trip to Davos by imposing new tariffs on imported washing machines and solar panels, Britain's competition regulator ruled that a Fox takeover of Sky was “not in the public's best interest”, and the charity 'Save the Children' temporarily suspended operations in Afghanistan following an ISIS claimed attack on their Jalalabad office.
 
The world this week also lost science fiction pioneer Ursula K. le Guin but gained a set of identical macaque monkeys following the first successful cloning of primates ever done.

Week in Review - 20 January 2018

Big news this week was the announcement that an authentic copy of German General Lothar von Trotha's extermination order against the OvaHereo and Nama communities had been discovered and would be hand delivered to the court in New York where the current genocide lawsuit is to be heard later this month. Also very important was the fact that Namibian advocate Bience Gawanas had been appointed by the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres as a UN Special Advisor on Africa, and news that the City of Windhoek would provide 105 mobile water tanks to informal settlements by early February in a bid to stave off the current Hepatitus E outbreak the city is facing. 
 
In South Africa tensions between Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille and her party, the Democratic Alliance, reached a head and de Lille is to be investigated over a 60 day period, but that news was overshadowed by the fact that water restrictions in the city have been increased to level 6B and residents are now being told to reduce their consumption further from their allowed 87 litres to a new low of 50 litres per person per day. There was relief of a sort as the Reserve Bank announced that it would keep the Repo rate unchanged at 6.75%, and the National Prosecuting Authority appeared to have woken from the long nap it was taking under the presidency of Jacob Zuma as it announced that it's Asset Forfeiture Unit would serve global consultancy firm McKinsey and Gupta-linked group Trillian Capital Partners with a preservation order for assets worth around R1.6 billion. Former FNB CEO Michael Jordaan also announced that he would be launching a new bank in the country by the third quarter of 2018.
 
Weather made the news quite a bit this week as the islands of Mauritius and Reunion were both battered by tropical cyclone Berguitta, and at least 9 people died in Europe as violent winds struck northern parts of the region. At least in Australia there was joy as tropical cyclone Joyce brought unprecedented rainfall of between 160mm to 260mm to the usually arid western parts of the country without causing any real damage.
 
In Nigeria the Boko Haram Islamist group released a new video purportedly showing some of the remaining so-called 'Chibok girls' saying that they were “by the grace of Allah” never coming back, at least 12 people were also killed in the country as suicide bombers once again targeted the Borno state capital, Maiduguri. Elsewhere in Africa Catholic bishops appealed to armed groups in the Central African Republic to stop looting and lay down their arms, while reports came in that disparate armed groups in the DRC were setting aside many of their difference and joining forces in an effort to rid the country of President Joseph Kabila. French Magistrates also this week dismissed a case brought against a group of French soldiers accused of sexually abusing children while on deployment in the Central African Republic, and there were growing fears that 2018 could be the year sub-Saharan Africa sees a new debt crisis.
 
Elsewhere in the world at least 38 people were killed and over 100 injured in a twin suicide bombing in central Baghdad, the Iranian oil tanker which had caught fire after colliding with a Chinese freighter last week sank, with some 30 crew members still missing, following Hawaii's false alarm of a missile attack Japanese broadcaster NHK had to apologize for also issuing a false alarm, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the United States of forming a “terror army” on his country's southern border.
 
Finally in really positive news, Belgium pledged 19 million Euros to the UNRWA after the US slashed it's funding to the UN aid organisation for Palestinian refugees, and hundreds of Israeli rabbis said that they were willing to hide upwards of 38 000 African asylum seekers facing deportation in a campaign dubbed The Anne Frank Home Sanctuary movement.