The Astronomy sub-Agency (NRF programme 5) was established on 01 October 2014 with the appointment of the Deputy CEO: Astronomy. The term ‘sub-Agency’ is used to indicate that if and when the Minister declares that a separate organisation will be set up to manage astronomy in South Africa, the sub-Agency will begin to develop increased corporate and operational capacity to enable a seamless transfer to a separate legal entity. The main purpose of the sub-Agency is to ‘lead the implementation of the National Strategy for Multiwavelength Astronomy’. The strategy has been under development over the past almost four years following a consultative process with the broad astronomy community and its stakeholders, and is expected to be released by the Minister of Science and Technology shortly. The sub-Agency is developing the Implementation Plan for the strategy. An Astronomy Advisory Council has been appointed to give scientific input into the affairs of the sub-Agency.
An important driving force for astronomy in South Africa is the pursuit of multiwavelength astronomy, the term ‘mulitwavelength astronomy’ has a scientific and technical interpretation, as well as a governance and administrative interpretation. It is noteworthy that South Africa currently hosts the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), which is a 10m class optical telescope and the largest of its kind in the Southern hemisphere. In addition, South Africa will be hosting the world’s large radio telescope, namely the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will come on-line in about 2022. Namibia currently hosts the world’s largest gamma ray telescope, and is bidding to host the Cherenkov Array Telescope (CTA) which is the next generation gamma ray telescope. So, it is remarkable that in a region of radius of only a few hundred kilometres, straddling both South Africa and Namibia, we have astronomy observational facilities that transcends a very wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum. This is unprecedented in the world.
Unlike during the colonial era, South Africa is now fast becoming a destination not only for making astronomical observations (collecting data), but also for doing the science (analysing the data and developing new scientific understandings of the data). Our scientists have great prospects of doing astronomical observations across the different wavelengths simultaneously and in real-time, which is useful for time-varying phenomena. They also have opportunities to interact with each across the different wavelengths, share knowledge and experience, and to collaborate. Astronomical phenomena are varied and complex that require a coordinated approach across the electromagnetic spectrum to develop better understandings of our universe. Data centres, data networks, and some engineering efforts can shared. It is more efficient to have a consolidated science engagement programme rather than a fragmented system that we currently have. The sub-Agency is working toward a consolidated human capacity development programme covering all astronomical endeavours in the country, including theoretical and computational astrophysics.
The sub-Agency oversees the management of SAAO, HARTRAO and the SKA SA Project, and an increasing number of astronomical programmes, projects and contracts. The governance and administrative systems that are being set up in support of astronomy within the sub-Agency transcend the historical divisions that have existed within astronomy in South Africa.
The sub-Agency manages a number of astronomy-specific collaborative agreements, with, for example, The Netherlands, the UK, USA, India and China. The sub-Agency will leverage its strong international partnerships towards the strengthening of the Astronomy on the African continent. A Steering Committee for the History of Astronomy in Africa is being set up to discuss heritage, culture, preservation of archives and artefacts in astronomy.