Tribute to Michael Gaylard, the man whose vision gave Ghana Africa’s first functioning radio telescope

Category: Africa/International, Feature Articles, ICT, Lead 310
The Late Dr. Michael Gaylard

Michael Gaylard, a former Director of South Africa’s Hartebeeshoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) started the programme that led to Ghana having the first functioning radio telescope in Africa, but he didn’t live to see it.

Dr. Michael Gaylard died in August 2014 at the age of 62.

He was born on July 1, 1952 in what was then Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe). He attended school in Salisbury and did his BSc at the University of Rhodesia, followed by his BSc Honours. He then went to Rhodes University in South Africa, and completed his MSc on “The Performance of a 22 GHz Radio Telescope” in November 1976.

Gaylard is credited with the conceptualisation of the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) Network (AVN). The vision was to have a network of radio astronomy telescopes throughout Africa, and he actively participated in and championed its development.

He joined the staff of the NITR (National Institute for Telecommunications Research), the parent institute of HartRAO on December 1, 1976. During 1977-78 he worked at NITR in the ionospheric propagation section and joined the HartRAO staff in January 1979. His first project at HartRAO was to commission a digital correlation spectrometer in South Africa when it was completed. He used that for his initial research work at HartRAO which was in the field of HII regions and recombination lines at 2.3 GHz. He was also the system manager for the HP computers used for controlling the telescope and associated equipment. He developed much of the software for automating observations and for analysing spectral line data.

In 1989, he completed his PhD on “Radio Studies of Ionised Hydrogen in the Southern Milky Way”, using the HartRAO 26m telescope.

His work, however, branched out into the field of 1612 MHz OH masers with the installation of an 18cm receiver in 1985. His field of work then enlarged to include methanol masers in star forming regions, where he collaborated extensively with Dr. Gordon Macleod (then of HartRAO) and Dr. Johan van der Walt of University of the North West. With the expansion of staff members at HartRAO, he became the leader of the Spectral Lines Programme and had some 70+ publications to his name.

He also headed the Science Awareness Outreach Programme at HartRAO from 1991. Creating an awareness of science in young people was one of his passions. Several staff members from the HartRAO Science Awareness Programme have also gone on to be part of the Square Kilometre Area (SKA) project.

He was among the key people who helped get the National Astronomy and Space Science Programme (NASSP) started. The NASSP school at HartRAO was something he enjoyed organizing and which has helped introduce a generation of SA astronomers to the practicalities of radio observing. He also understood that South African astronomers would do so much better working together than in their individual silos.

In an international context, Dr. Gaylard was the driving force behind South Africa’s membership of the Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe (JIVE), which carries out a wide range of research and development activities in VLBI-related fields, including radio astronomy data processing and applications of VLBI and radio astronomy technologies.

In two years of repairs to the Hartebeeshoek Radio Astronomy Observatory’s telescope, Dr. Gaylord reportedly used Google Maps to scour the continent for old telecommunications dishes.

“When he saw the Kuntunse dish, he realized that it — and others like it — could be converted for astronomy,” The Scientific American reported.

But it was a difficult exercise at the beginning. The switch has been difficult, James Chibueze, a VLBI scientist and AVN operator who works with SKA South Africa in Cape Town was cited as saying.

New telescopes are designed and built to set specifications, but during work on the Kuntunse dish, engineers and scientists have had to adapt their plans. And there have been issues with the stability of electrical power and Internet supply, the publication noted.

“If you look at the current VLBI network, we definitely do need antennas filling up the centre of Africa,” the The Scientific American quoted Chibueze as saying.

Tony Beasley, director of the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia, also told the Scientific American that the AVN is a “fantastic” initiative for the Southern Hemisphere, where the VLBI at present shares use of an array in Australia.

“The AVN would be a full-time array, would do a lot more science and is going to increase by an order of magnitude the amount of VLBI time available, and the southern skies thing is unique. We have lots of arrays in the Northern Hemisphere,” he says.

The AVN would also benefit from the technical advances made for the SKA and South Africa’s radio-astronomy ambitions, he adds.

The telescope in Ghana, in Kuntunse near Accra, is the first of an array of such instruments expected to be built across Africa over the next five years in efforts geared towards developing skills of African astronomers in the long-term. It made its first observations this year and will be formally opened later in 2017.

The telescope has begun observing methanol masers — radio emissions that can arise from a number of celestial phenomena — and pulsars. The AVN, according to the report, will fill in geographic gaps in the global VLBI, improving imaging by increasing the range of distances and possible angles between the telescopes in the network. The more telescopes there are in a VLBI network, the more detail astronomers can see, the Scientific American said.

As this great feat in astronomy is celebrated in Ghana and around the world, the name of Dr. Michael Gaylard takes a place of honour in the success story.

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi
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