An Island Gem for Astronomy: Mauritius the Next Frontier

Mauritius is an enchanting place, famous for its beautiful beaches and scenery. The island has one of the most beautiful night sky views with the galactic center arching over night after night. Twinkle twinkle little stars, shine so bright like a cosmic jewelry box. Mauritius is not the only place that enjoys beautiful night skies. There are several outer islands that are also part of Mauritius – Rodrigues, Saint Brandon and Agalega together form part of the big African continent.

Research & Education:

Abbe de la Caille, an Astronomer, passed through Mauritius in April 1753 where he conducted geographical work and Astronomical observations for nine months. Today the work started by Abbe de la Caille has been continued and greatly expanded. This continued research to unlock the mysteries of our Cosmos highlights that Mauritius is more than just an exotic tourist destination. It is a growing hub for meaningful science that celebrates innovation and growth.

The island currently has 3 Astronomers working at the University of Mauritius, 5 PhD holders currently residing outside of Mauritius and a dozen students pursuing postgraduate studies in Astrophysics abroad. The Mauritian Astronomers, though scattered around the globe are actively engaged in development efforts for Astronomy in Mauritius and the African continent. The areas of interest covered by Mauritian Astronomers include:
Radio Astronomy and Algorithm Development
Optical Astronomy
Machine Learning
Big data sciences
Genetic Programming

The small island, hosted the first radio interferometer in Africa, the Mauritius Radio Telescope (MRT). This first radio interferometer project showcased the true collaborative nature of Astronomy through an Indo-Mauritian partnership. It was built by local Mauritian Astronomers that teamed up with the Raman Research Institute and the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. The MRT is a low frequency array at 150 MHz and has managed to make a partial catalogue of the radio sky. The project was operational since the early 90’s and culminated in a NASA award in June 2004 as recognition for its excellence in education and discovery.

There is also a minor planet named after a Mauritian Astronomer – Somanah 19318.

Aside from all the interesting research that is carried out, there is also some active education going on in the field. The University of Mauritius offers a full time BSc Honours in Physics with Astronomy since the 1990s. The program features one of the best Physics courses in in the region and has been run for over 25 years. One of the aspects of the course requires students to take part in a final year honours project which gives them experience with applied knowledge from the course. The university has also developed an MSc course in Radio Astronomy and applications will start soon.

International Activities:

Mauritius an insular island of around 200 km2 and a population of 1.5M inhabitants has built a solid foundation in Astronomy based on international collaboration. Mauritius has been actively involved in Astronomy events through:
Transit of Venus 1700 – 2004
International Year of Astronomy 2009
International Year of Light 2015

The first transit of Venus from Mauritius was observed by french Astronomer Alexandre Guy Pingre in the 1700’s at Rodrigues island on 6 june 1761. Another expedition led by the Royal Observatory was held in the 1874 transit of Venus and was observed from both Mauritius and Rodrigues Islands. This effort established the distance between Venus and the Sun and highlighted the island as an ideal place to view the transit. In the 2004 transit of Venus a United States led expedition was launched in Mauritius and yielded some great views and notable data.

Mauritius has also committed itself to various projects in collaboration with several different countries.

The Square Kilometer Array Project (SKA) is a global international project that aims to build the worlds biggest Radio Telescope. The project sites would be shared between Australia and Africa. The African part of the project will be hosted by nine partner countries which Mauritius will form part of. Mauritius was one of the first countries to effect legislation to allow the SKA into the country. It is one of the eight partner countries that will host the phase 2 of the SKA project.

A spin off of the SKA project that is geared towards the African continent is the African Very Long Baseline Interferometer (VLBI) Network (AVN). The AVN project is an African initiative that aims to convert redundant telecommunication dishes into radio telescopes. Mauritius has set in motion plans to put up a new single dish that will form part of the African VLBI network and boost research in the region.

The Ionosphere Monitoring System is a collaboration between the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) and the Mauritius Radio Telescope (MRT). This system studies ionospheric irregularities in South Africa and the African region. In essence it will study the changes in seasonal variations along with Solar and Geomagnetic activities. One aspect is that the system keeps track of extreme space weather (for example geomagnetic storms and ionospheric storms).

Human Capital Development initiatives have also played a crucial role in ensuring that there is growth and training for Mauritians to benefit from all the exciting projects. One of the main activities is the Joint Exchange Development Initiative (JEDI) that was started in South Africa and brought to Mauritius. JEDI is a capacity building workshop that has been run every year in Mauritius since 2011. The workshop aims to enhance development and education through direct transfer of skills in a peer environment. Participants spend a week under the same roof and interact with each other in an informal setting. Such a setting enables participants to get the most of their abilities and engage in uninterrupted research and develop strong team building capabilities.

JEDI 2011 was the first JEDI hosted outside South Africa, the workshop was held at Le Saint Aubin Auberge. Participants would select one of the research topics and collaborate with professionals interested in that particular field of study. Students would present their work at the end of the day and had to present a poster at the end of the workshop. The focus of this workshop was to teach participants research and develop a paper that could be published.

Mini-JEDI 2012 AstroPython workshop was hosted in Mauritius in order to introduce the Python programming language to the participants. The workshop was geared towards building a strong competency in Python as it is the preferred language for Radio Astronomy and has been selected as the core language for the SKA project. Once participants were comfortable with the language, they were given a mini project to take on.

Mini-JEDI 2013 was a three day workshop that focused on Virtual Observatories. The students were taught about accessing data from the various telescopes around the world. The participants explored the online databases and were taught how to extract the data. The workshop gave the participants a hands on experience with data from telescopes and how to use that data to write a paper.

Super JEDI 2013 was a conference that focused on discussion, brainstorming, collaboration and networking around various themes in Astronomy. The themes included Science with Planck, Astrostatistics, Theory in the Era of Big Data, Visualisation and Computation, Multiwavelength Astronomy and Cosmology. One of the best outcomes of this workshop was cross disciplinary discussions that allowed the generation of new ideas and new collaborations. This was accomplished over a lunch talk where participants would engage with the speaker for 10 minutes over a lunch setting.

Mini-JEDI 2015 Python and Machine Learning workshop hosted in January 2015, where students were taught the basics about Python programming and Machine Learning. The mini JEDI was a week long program meant to prepare the participants for the main JEDI workshop. Students were given the opportunity to explore the programs used.

JEDI 2015 workshop will focus on giving participants a more indepth understanding on Python programming and Machine Learning with applications in Astronomy. The workshop is the main extension from the mini JEDI 2015 and will build on from the knowledged shared from that workshop.

Public Outreach:

The island has a very active outreach community that fuels public interest in the field. Most Mauritians when asked about Astronomy light up with joy and gladly engage in discussions around the subject. There have been many sustained initiatives around the island throughout the years and here is a roundup of some of them.

Café Scientific which is a global initiative to spread science awareness to the general public was introduced into Mauritius by local physicists. The launch event for Cafe Scientifique Maurice covered Astronomy and Machine Learning and was hosted in January 2015. The talk featured a Mauritian scientist working with the SKA Africa and a South African cosmologist, who both gave the public an interesting view into the world of modern Astronomy.

Night Time observations and presentations are carried out by the education division of the local science center. During these events, members of the public get to view the Moon and Jupiter through telescopes provided by the center. The science center frequently teams up with schools and other institutions to host various public outreach efforts that cover star gazing to Astronomy art. The night time observation is an initiative to meet the public demand for a better understanding on astronomy and celestial bodies.

Mauritius Astronomical Society and Astrophotography associations showcase the great enthusiasm for amateur astronomy on the island. Tourists and locals alike are dazzled by the beautiful skies that Mauritius has to offer. The amateur associations distribute astronomical information to the general public. Mauritius also has several independent Astronomy education and public outreach efforts that are carried out on a small local scale. Such efforts include students, teachers, and members of the public.

The path to understand and un-ravel the mysteries of the Universe is not an easy one. The small Astronomy community in Mauritius are thriving to bring their little contribution to unlock these mysteries.

This article was written by Tasneem Rossenkhan, a Mauritian Astronomy enthusiast. Views expressed in OAD guest blogs may not necessarily represent the views of the OAD.