Professor Justin Jonas receives top Rhodes University award for his contribution to Radio Astronomy

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[L-R] Acting DVC: Research, Innovation and Partnerships Prof Joanna Dames; Prof Justin Jonas; DVC: Academic and Student Affairs Prof 'Mabokang Monnapula-Mapesela; and Vice-Chancellor Prof Sizwe Mabizela
[L-R] Acting DVC: Research, Innovation and Partnerships Prof Joanna Dames; Prof Justin Jonas; DVC: Academic and Student Affairs Prof 'Mabokang Monnapula-Mapesela; and Vice-Chancellor Prof Sizwe Mabizela

By Bukamuso Sebata

Professor Justin Jonas, Professor of Physics and Electronics at the Rhodes University Department of Physics and Electronics, gave a lecture following his bestowal of the inaugural esteemed Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Award (2020). In attendance were family and friends, students, and the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sizwe Mabizela.

In Prof Jonas’ lecture, titled “Karoo adventures of Ziggy Stardust”, he built on his 2003 inaugural lecture on “The Hazy Cosmic Jive” to highlight the unprecedented growth of radio astronomy in South Africa and over Africa over the past two decades, with Rhodes University playing a significant role.

He covered four main themes: the International Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Project, the African SKA site, the MeerKAT telescope, and the people involved. He began his lecture by recognising the “diverse cast that made this achievement possible”.

He followed this by acknowledging the role white male privilege has played in his life and his contribution to the SKA Project. When his family relocated to South Africa in 1995 from the United Kingdom, they gained privileged middle-class status in the country solely based on the colour of their skin. He said that this privilege was a “direct consequence of the apartheid system that disadvantaged millions and dispossessed people for the benefit of a few”. Prof Jonas said, “I hope that I have used this privilege to good effect during my life.”

The history of radio astronomy at Rhodes University goes all the way back to 1959, when the first radio telescope in Africa was established. Over time, the radio astronomy facilities expanded and by the time Prof Jonas enrolled at the University, there was a small telescope located next to the Department of Physics and Electronics. In the 1970s Rhodes University partnered with Dr George Nicholson to transform a dish abandoned by NASA into a radio telescope at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) near Johannesburg.

Although modest by international standards, this telescope had a unique advantage - it was the only one in Africa and also located in the southern hemisphere. Jonas and his team of students worked alongside Nicholson to contribute to the observatory by developing instrumentation, writing software, and utilising the telescope. Their efforts resulted in a map of the radio emissions from the southern sky, where the Milky Way is dominant. This was a challenging project that took a considerable amount of time, and it became a significant milestone in his journey. 

Prof Jonas said he is a huge fan of David Bowie, especially his album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”. The title of his inaugural lecture was inspired by one of his favourite tracks on the album called “Starman”, a song he played during his lecture.

The next part of the lecture focused on the SKA project. Radio astronomy is a relatively young science, starting only about a century ago when Jansky discovered radio signals originating from the Milky Way in 1933. Unlike optical astronomy, which focuses on visible light, radio astronomy allows us to observe a different universe filled with extreme physics and cold temperatures.

After World War II, radar technology advancements greatly contributed to the development of radio astronomy. The need for larger instruments led to the conception of SKA, a global project requiring substantial resources and funding. The SKA consists of two types of elements: a low-frequency array and a mid-frequency array, both being extensive arrays of antennas connected with electronic and computing systems to combine the individual signals.

Its purpose is to explore the universe’s evolution from the Big Bang to the present, tracing back the formation of stars and galaxies, studying dark matter and dark energy, and testing Einstein’s theories. Doing astronomy in South Africa and Africa is significant not only for scientific progress but also for cultural and societal value. It aligns with the country’s strategy of mission-driven innovation, and leverages skills and technologies developed in various sectors, such as mining, energy, and defence.

In the early 2000s, the SALT optical telescope project had begun. A workshop was held to explore the ‘next big thing’ in astronomy, and Prof Jonas was persuaded to participate and proposed that South Africa join the international SKA project that was already active.  The proposal was accepted by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) and Prof Jonas started representing South Africa on the International SKA Steering Committee.  A SKA South Africa project office was established with Dr Bernie Fanaroff as Director, and Prof Jonas as technical and scientific lead.  Prof Jonas presented a proposal to Cabinet on behalf of the project team in 2003, gaining support and approval to have South Africa host the SKA.  After an extensive study, a suitable site for the SKA was located in the central Karoo region of the Northern Cape province.  The SKA site competition led to Africa and Australia being selected as dual sites, with SKA-mid allocated to Africa.

Prof Jonas described the development and construction of the MeerKAT radio telescope on the Karoo, which is a precursor instrument for SKA-mid.  The MeerKAT project provided a vehicle for developing SKA technologies and also preparing scientists, engineers and technicians for the SKA. Despite initial scepticism, they secured funding for the project, and developed collegial international partnerships that provided valuable inputs to the telescope design. MeerKAT was designed and built in the Karoo using local industries, and the project was completed on time and within budget.   The performance of the telescope exceeded the original specification because of design choices guided by expert opinion and a rational systems engineering methodology.

The data rate produced by the MeerKAT is comparable to the entire internet bandwidth worldwide, making the operation of the telescope a significant big data challenge. They rely on South Africa’s largest supercomputer to analyse the data, which is stored on disk storage modules locally designed and produced. Due to electronic emissions, all the electronic equipment is buried underground in a shielded facility that serves as a protective hub for the equipment. The MeerKAT has surpassed all expectations, even capturing the best-ever image of the centre of our galaxy.

Prof Jonas has been involved in the development of the SARAO Human Capital Development Program designed to foster development of scientists, engineers, and technicians for MeerKAT and the SKA, and also develop technologies related to radio astronomy. This program includes providing support for Carnarvon High School by providing science and math teachers and upgrading their facilities to benefit the surrounding towns.

An important initiative close to his heart is the artisan training centre which plays a vital role in nurturing technical talent for telescope operations and also public and private enterprises in the Northern Cape. The Human Capital Development Program has led to the expansion of the South African radio astronomy community than now numbers hundreds of individuals, through support for research groups, postgraduate supervisors and student bursaries at universities. The Rhodes University Centre for Radio Astronomy Techniques and Technologies (RATT), headed by Distinguished Professor Oleg Smirnov, is one of the initiatives supported.  

Given his life-long achievements and their extraordinary and distinguished contribution to the intellectual work of the University, the sector, and the national and international community of scholars, Professor Justin Jonas is a well-deserved first awardee of the Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Award, a prestigious award of the highest status in the University.