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Lewis-based scientist helps African astronomical observatory bid

By Steven McKenzie
BBC Scotland Highlands and Islands reporter

image captionThe project could lead to the building of an observatory of international importance

A scientist based in the Western Isles is helping African astronomers to find the best spot for a new telescope.

Dr Edward Graham's survey of Kenya's Highlands is the first of its kind.

The Search for An Astronomical Site in Kenya (Saska) project hopes to build an observatory of international standing by about 2017.

Dr Graham, a lecturer in climate at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), has been using meteorological data gathered by Europe and the US.

If the project is successful, Kenya will become the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to host an astronomical observatory capable of contributing to international research.

Dr Graham said: "Astronomical observation depends heavily on the weather and climate.

"Most obviously, clear skies are vital for successful star-gazing, but equally important are the total water vapour content of the whole atmosphere, as well as the amount of turbulence."

The scientist, who has been doing the survey from his office in Stornoway, on Lewis, added: "Traditionally, sub-tropical or tropical mountain top sites are preferred by astronomers, because, being higher than their surroundings, they have less atmosphere to 'see through', which results in fewer perturbations in the final stellar image."

Economic boost

Nairobi's Inoorero University of Kenya, the South African Large Telescope and UHI are leading the Saska research.

As part of the project's two-year research work, Dr Graham was commissioned to make a detailed study of atmospheric conditions using detailed meteorological data and tools such as Google Earth.

His research will lead to the drawing up of a shortlist of three potential sites for the observatory.

The next phase of the project will involve the installation of weather stations to better study cloud cover, wind conditions, humidity and changes in temperature at each of the locations.

The project team hope the building of the telescope will bring an economic boost and help to develop technological skills in Kenya.

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