The 3rd annual African Astronomical Society conference

The week-long hybrid African Astronomical Society (AfAS) conference kicked off on the 13th of March, hosted at the Origins Centre at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, Gauteng. With the opening keynote address delivered by the Vice Chancellor of Witwatersrand University, Prof. Zeblon Vilakazi.

The week consisted of many interesting science, outreach, communication, development and education talks and sessions. With many astronomers and students from across the continent showcasing their research and what they are working on. The expected outcomes of the AfAS conference are to enhance collaborations, increase awareness and improve dialogues among different countries. 

Day 1 saw a special session titled: IAU General Assembly 2024 in Cape Town – Gearing up for the GA 2024. With this being the first ever GA being held on the African continent, the audience were given updates and highlights from the subcommittees of the GA organising team. The atmosphere and excitement surrounding the event was palpable. 

There was a dedicated room where participants could visit different exhibitors’ stands, see the work being done and chat to them. Amongst the exhibitors was SkySkan which specialises in multi-media products to showcase and communicate science in a cutting-edge visual way. Other exhibitors included African Science Stars, Hack4Dev, Office for Astronomy Development (OAD), PanAfrican Planetary and Space Science Network (PAPSSN), the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO)

Breakthrough Listen, which works with Berkeley SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) also participated at the conference, holding a special session on the work being done and hosting a reception dinner on day 1. They also had a stand where people could interact and talk to them about their research. 

An exciting talk was given by Jane Rigby who is a NASA astrophysicist and serves as the Operations Project Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Rigby explained that JWST peers back into time when the first galaxies were lighting up the universe. “We anticipate a long science mission with Webb,” she said. There is 20-plus years of fuel on board for cooling. 

Dominic Vertue from the OAD, who gave a talk about how astronomy may be able to help those with mental health issues. Vertue, who has a background in social work, said that Astronomy for Mental Health is a Flagship project of the OAD. He explained that they are still exploring ways that astronomy may be able to help those affected by mental health. Getting away from the busy city and looking up at the vastness of the universe may just be able to help.

The last day kicked off with a Business Meeting of AfAS. This covered all the achievements of the 2022/23 year and the different committees spoke about how their various projects are going and their future plans. 

The last item on Friday, before the closing, was the African Planetarium Association Workshop. The keynote address was by Michael McConville from the International Planetarium Society, which is celebrating the centennial of the planetarium. The first planetarium projector was unveiled in Germany in 1923 and the first planetarium opened in Munich in May, 1925. In one the rooms they even had a mobile planetarium set up. 

The week-long conference didn’t end there. AfAS along with DARA Big Data and the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA) hosted ~ 30 students from 9 different African countries to participate in a hackathon. 

Eslam Hussein, a Data Sciencitist at IDIA explained, “We are showing students how they can go from astronomy and go and explore other data sets with these skills. They get to know how to do classification and to visualise the data.”

It was announced at this year’s event that the 2024 conference will be hosted in Morrocco. Stay tuned for more details or visit the AfAS website for more information: