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Meet Namhla: She came to STFC's UK ATC in Edinburgh to learn how to build an observatory!

The Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) in Edinburgh welcomed Namhla Mabombo.

Namhla, is a graduate trainee working with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in South Africa – what will be the world’s largest radio telescope when it is operational in the late 2020s.

As part of her training she is seconded to the South African Astronomy Observatory (SAAO) to work on a next generation instrument called MaxE for the South African Large Telescope – the largest single ground-based optical telescope in the world, currently. As part of this secondment she is also involved in the Kenya Astronomy Observatory (KAO) – a very exciting project which could see Kenya own its first research-class optical observatory.

The KAO project is supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) – a fund operated by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to support cutting-edge research and innovation in developing countries.

Namhla visited UK ATC in Edinburgh, as part of the support provided by GCRF for the KAO, and here she shares with us what she learnt during her month in Scotland.

What brings you to UK ATC, Namhla?

“The proposals for the only research-class astronomical observatory in equatorial Africa, thanks to a collaboration between Kenya and the UK, are at a very exciting stage. And I’ve come to the UK ATC to learn from leading experts in their field, about how to actually build a fully functional and operational observatory.”


“Dr Hermine Schnetler is Head of Systems Engineering at UK ATC, and she is mentoring me. She is one of the key people in the development of the KAO project and has strong ties with South Africa, which is how we got introduced. Hermine is highly respected within the astronomy systems engineering community because of the many successful projects she has worked on, and I can’t think of anyone better to learn from.”

What has been your journey into systems engineering, so far?

“I studied Mechatronics engineering at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, as an undergraduate, and I am continuing with my studies, by doing a post graduate Mechatronics degree part time, whilst working with the SKA on their young professionals development programme.”

“I got introduced to systems by Thomas Kusel, the SKA Programme Manager, when he came to the University to talk about the role of Systems Engineering in the design of MeerKAT and SKA (the MeerKAT radio telescope is a precursor to the SKA telescope, and consists of 64 radio dishes in the Northern Cape of South Africa). My interest grew from there, and so I applied for the graduate programme at SKA doing Systems Engineering.”

“I then participated in the ‘Greatest System’s Engineering Challenge’, organised by the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) South African Chapter in 2018 and was awarded the sharpest system’s engineer of the year.”

“After that I got involved in more projects doing systems engineering work and I must say, I really enjoy it.”

What is mechatronics?

Mechatronics is a branch of engineering that combines both electrical and mechanical engineering to create an integrative methodology that aims to optimise the design and functionality of a product.

What are your goals for what you would like to learn at UK ATC?

“To build an observatory, you must look at everything. These include the science goals – what the astronomers who will use the observatory actually want to be able to observe and do. And it includes too, things like the infrastructure around the observatory – the roads and the buildings that will serve the observatory.”

“My main goal is to create a ‘concept of operation.’ What I mean by that is that I want to be able to design the ‘functional flow’ of the whole observatory – the systems and processes that map out the functional requirements of the observatory that also satisfies the needs of the users (in this case, the astronomers).”

“Designing a functional and operational observatory is an incredible project, and with Hermine’s vast knowledge of systems’ engineering is a great mentor.”

What kind of things are you considering in the design process?

“We have a list of potential science cases from a recent workshop in Kenya with universities and students. Within that I am considering things like site selection, build requirements, the telescope type that is to be designed etc. I am also making reference to the Optical Observatory project that was recently established in Ethiopia. And taking learnings from the Ethiopian experience.”

Space programme Ethiopia? - Two telescopes have students, astronomers seeing stars

What have you learned in your time at UK ATC, so far?

“I have learnt a lot about functional analyses, system’s life cycles, system’s hierarchy and the meaning of it. Most importantly I have learnt the importance of drawing clear technical diagrams that are easy to read and understand without much explanation.”

“I’m learning too, a lot about optical astronomy. With SKA I’ve was learning about radio astronomy, but the KAO will study in the visible electromagnetic spectrum. It’s been fascinating learning about the different tools and requirements for observing celestial objects in different light spectra.”

“I’m also really enjoying learning how a project manager drives an initiative like this forward – how to lead and manage a team of people.”

What most excites you about the Kenyan Astronomy Observatory initiative?

“That Kenya astronomers will have a world class observatory in their own country. It will create jobs for scientists and engineers, who won’t have to leave the country to find opportunities in their field. And it will also create jobs for people with the skills and trades needed to build and maintain the observatory site.”

“Having a research class observatory will also, I hope, be inspirational for African people – perhaps even encouraging younger generations to study subjects like mathematics, physics and astronomy – to build Africa’s contribution to knowledge in those areas.”

“As an example, I have seen what MeerKAT has done for South Africa. Through the MeerKAT project, many young people like me have been given the opportunity to advance their careers with support such as bursaries, graduation programmes, grants and postdoctoral fellowships.”

What has your time at UK ATC enabled you to achieve?

“I have been able to define and analyse the functional requirements of the observatory site using a model-based systems engineering tool, and to create a document which defines in detail how the Kenya Observatory will be established, operated and maintained. It also looks at the whole life cycle of this project.”

How have you enjoyed Edinburgh?

“I’ve really enjoyed Edinburgh. It’s an incredibly beautiful city. Not only do you have imposing historic buildings, filled with incredible stories, it is also surrounded by incredible natural beauty. I’ve been to Calton Hill to see the old City Observatory. I’ve visited Edinburgh castle. And I’ve gone to St Giles cathedral for evening songs. I’ve enjoyed taking in the city and stopping off at the many lovely coffee shops. And not only that… Coming to work every day at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh site has been such a treat. The views taking in the city to the north, the coast to the East and the Pentland Hills to the West and South are breath-taking.”

– Ends –


Kenya Astronomy Observatory (KAO)

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Last updated: 27 June 2019


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