Feasibility study underway to build second space observatory in Lalibela

(EBC; 21 March 2016) - With its clear skies and closeness to the equator, Ethiopia is an ideal location for space exploration.

Yet for a developing country facing its worst drought in 50 years, spending millions of dollars to look at the stars might, at first, seem frivolous.

"They call us crazy because they think we're [only] exploring outer space and gazing at the stars. But they can't see the bigger picture," says Abinet Ezra of the Ethiopian Space Science Society.

Ezra explains that the "bigger picture" means using space research to expand the economy, improve agriculture, fight climate change and create jobs.

The Ethiopian Space Science Society, which has recruited 10,000 members since being launched in 2004 by three aspiring astronomers, has recently opened east Africa's only space observatory on the 3,200-metre summit of Entoto, overlooking Addis Ababa.

The multi-million dollar Entoto Observatory and Research Centre has become one of the prime places to view Orion's Belt – which appears larger and more pronounced here than from the northern hemisphere.

The society wooed a series of government insiders and private donors to fund its research and pay for the observatory – although the government took over running costs in March.

Last year, 219 students applied for the 24 places on the Institute of Technology's PhD program in astronomy, one of the five universities now teaching at a post-graduate level in the country.

The society manages more than 60 space science clubs throughout the country's school system.

"If someone studies here, they're going to contribute to society. It's a mechanism to control the brain drain," the director says.

The Ethiopian Space Science Society is currently working on a feasibility study to build a second observatory in Lalibela.

One of Ethiopia's holiest sites, Lalibela's 12th century rock-cut churches are a feat of engineering that has long fascinated visitors.

The proposed state-of-the-art research centre has the backing of the International Astronomical Union, of which the Ethiopian Space Science Society is an official member.

Besides, the society believes that the dry climate and Lalibela's 4,200-metre-high peaks have the same stargazing potential as the famous Atacama desert in Chile.

The society hopes to represent east and central Africa in the space science field, and applauds the work of South Africa as well as the Nigerian space agency.

While development remains the society's main aim, do they have plans to send an Ethiopian astronaut into space? "Of course," says Ashenafi.

Source: The Guardian