Ethiopia starts looking at the stars - from a nearly perfect location

Stargazing from Ethiopia's first space observatory
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    Stargazing from Ethiopia's first space observatory

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Stargazing from Ethiopia's first space observatory 09:19

Story highlights

  • A $5 million observatory opened this year has put Ethiopia firmly in the African space race
  • Two one meter telescopes can see into the depths of the Milk Way
  • Hopes future expansion will lead to research benefiting multiple sectors of the economy

(CNN)For young people there is no limit, and in Addis Ababa dreams fly about classrooms with as much abandon as anywhere else in the world.

Seventeen year-old Meron Mekonnen wants to be a particle physicist. Demekel Demto a rocket scientist. Dagem Teresse is interested in inventing things and wants to become a robotics engineer.
    Mekonnen is quick to note that Einstein was young when he published his Theory of Relativity, a 26 year-old university student. A single equation of his "changed the history of science," she points out: "I have plenty of thoughts..."
    Today's youth are always told to reach for the stars. But thanks to the country's first space observatory, some Ethiopians might just get there.

    The real sky scanners

    One of two reflective one-meter telescopes, pictured in the grounds of The Entoto Observatory and Research Center.
    Located in the hills outside of the capital, the Entoto Observatory and Research Center is propelling the nation forward in Africa's space race.
    Three thousand two hundred meters above sea level, the observatory is an integral part of a programme launched by the Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS). An independent organization established in 2004, it is keen to utilize the station's unique location and ability to observe practically all the sky -- both northern and southern hemispheres.
    "You can see almost anything," explains 24 year-old engineer Ghion Ashenavi. "We have taken images of galaxies, stars, clusters, moons, planets and many celestial objects... In the future we are planning to take more... this [telescope] is capable of doing so many things."
    Equipped with two one meter telescopes, modern CCDs and a spectrograph, the station is playing to its strengths.
    "[A] developing country cannot compete with developed countries," says Leonid Berdnikov, a Russian professor from Moscow currently studying at the observatory.
    "We can only study objects inside our galaxy," concedes Bernikov. Luckily for him, it's estimated the Milky Way holds between 100-400 billion stars, offering plenty of "variable stars, double stars, star clusters [and] extra solar planets" the telescope has trained its lens on so far.
    "There are many unsolved problems in astronomy which don't require huge telescopes. [Problems that] require a huge amount of observing time, so we concentrate on those kinds of projects."

    Buoyed by an economic take off

    Moon close-up taken by Entoto Observatory telescopes.
    The ESSS' goals for the project are ambitious and clear: to promote space science and astronomy; establish a research center bringing together existing centers and universities; build international collaboration; and encourage space and space technology throughout the country.
    The observatory represents a significant investment, with total costs running to $5 million so far. Funded by members of the ESSS and Saudi-Ethiopian billionaire Sheikh Mohammed Al Amoudi, it's hoped that the government will soon lend its weight -- and its check book -- to help expand the project.
    "We are going to build another research structure," says Kelali Tekle, chairman of the board at the ESSS and director of the East African Regional Office for Astronomy at the International Astronomic Union. The mooted building will "help to receive data... and that data will help us further develop research programmes."
    The ESSS make a strong case for government funding. In the words of Tekle "development is not one dimensional," and investing in space has a "calculated advantage" when it comes to long term prosperity.
    "Of course Ethiopia is growing fast," says Solomon Tessesse, director of the observatory. "But [a] sustainable economy should be supported by technology. It should be supported by science... [otherwise] the economy will fluctuate; it will oscillate and then the development cannot be sustained."
    There are plans for Ethiopia to attain greater autonomy when it comes to space -- and that involves more than just looking into it.
    Ethiopia is currently beholden to others when it comes to broadcasting and telecommunications. This needs to change according to Tekle. From environmental monitoring to meteorological issues, "whatever activities we do today are directly, not indirectly, associated with space programs."
    "Whenever we go to the service sector or the production sector or agriculture... we entirely depend on space programs," he explains. "Because we are renting other countries' satellites, we are paying... few people understand, so we must revert this."
    Tekle admits that Ethiopia doesn't have the current capacity "to build a satellite, but we are working with other firms... our engineers will be involved, so they will have hands on experience. In three to five years we'll have an Earth observation satellite."

    Building for the future

    Ghion Ashenafi, an electrical engineer at the Entoto Observatory and Research Center, inside one of the center's telescopes.
    The observatory has already enlisted 18 graduate students studying space science, Earth observation and astronomy, and 8 Masters students are also taking part in research and training.
    By raising awareness of all things above Earth, it is hoped the observatory will serve as a source of inspiration for Ethiopia's next generation of problem-solvers.
    Tekle is confident that Ethiopia will have "a very good space programme in the near future." With such hungry minds waiting to push through, he has every reason to be.
    "We are in the twenty first century," says Mekonnen. "It's time for science and technology, and building this station is going to make our country go from being developing to developed.
    "Science is the only thing that could answer every silly or challenging question I have inside.... I want to know what this everything is made of; I want to know what this astonishing universe is made of."