May 2015
Contents / home
Learners to link up with astronaut
Shared Sky, shared wisdom
"Talking science" competition
A meeting of minds
Young scientists take on Australia
Learners unveil project in Beijing
Introduction to crystals
Young Science Communicators' Competition
SAASTA inspires class of 2015
Meet Prof. Nox Makunga
Top young achiever's journey
Wonders of water at Scifest Africa
Learners work with particle physicists
Meet SAEON's new education officer
Light comes out of the darkness
In the news
Upcoming events
It's a fact!

Mafikeng learners chat to astronaut on International Space Station

A group of learners from Sol Plaatje Primary School in Mafikeng had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk directly with an astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS) on 2 May 2015, a day they will long remember.

Excited learners from the school, with their winning team of the 2014 National AstroQuiz asked Captain Samantha Cristoforetti questions about life in space, science experiments conducted on the ISS and astronomy in general.


Samantha Cristoforetti is an Italian European Space Agency astronaut, Italian Air Force pilot and engineer
The International Space Station

This direct contact with "Futura" – the long-term mission of the Italian and European Space Agencies on the ISS – was arranged by the Italian Embassy in Pretoria. Futura started on 10 November 2014 and ends in May this year. Captain Cristoforetti is a Futura crew member and the first Italian woman in space.

The Embassy approached Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) to arrange an opportunity for a South African school to participate in the ARISS School Contacts activity. ARISS is a group of volunteers devoted to creating the experience for learners worldwide to talk directly to crew members on the ISS, inspiring an interest in science and technology, encouraging them to pursue careers in these fields, including engineering and mathematics, and engaging them with radio science technology through amateur radio.

While negotiating to secure a slot for a South African school, the Embassy approached SAASTA to assist with identifying a school for this project. The fact that the Sol Plaatje Primary School team beat 1 101 other schools to win SAASTA's National AstroQuiz in 2014, secured them this exciting opportunity. A group of about 30 learners joined the winning AstroQuiz team, Ebenitha Esterhuizen, Kgotlholela Seagisa, Oratile Selatlhedi and Orefile Morule (who have all now moved on to Grade 8 in high school), with their educator Micalla Lucas to talk to Captain Cristoforetti.


Hans van de Groenendaal, President of the Southern African Amateur Radio Satellite Association (left), assists Aqilah Davids (centre) to talk to Captain Samantha Cristoforetti on the International Space Station, with Oratile Selatlhedi intensely listening as he was the next person to speak with the ISS
The winners of the 2014 national AstroQuiz finals were, from left: Ebenitha Esterhuizen, Kgotlholela Seagisa, Oratile Selatlhedi and Orefile Morule from Sol Plaatje School in Mafikeng, North West

On the day of the event, the link to the ISS was established via a tele-bridge in the USA which connected the school in rural South Africa with an amateur radio ground station located in Casale Monferrato, in the north of Italy.

Tensions were running high when it was established that the telephone line extended to the school hall could not receive incoming calls. "We frantically arranged with the tele-bridge in the USA that we would be calling them," Hans van de Groenendaal, President of SA AMSAT (Southern Africa Amateur Radio Satellite Association) said.

The magic happened and when the first words "Hi I am Samatha Cristoforetti" suddenly came across the speakers there was a spontaneous applause, followed by an intense 10 minutes as Sol Plaatje learners and learners at the Italian school alternately asked the questions.

Over and above the chat with Captain Cristoforetti, other interesting activities for the learners included a science show, a robotics presentation, a radio amateur presentation and a final contact with the Italian school.


Thato Majele from North West University's Mafikeng campus demonstrates to the learners that science can be fun
Sol Plaatje learners wave to their counterparts at the Italian school

Italy and South Africa collaborating in science and technology areas

Science, technology and innovation are exceptional tools that promote collaboration between South Africa and Italy. The collaboration was strengthened by the signing, in 2014, of a three-year Bilateral Programme of Cooperation between the two countries. The science communities will work together in fields including information and communication technology, radio astronomy, advanced materials, biotechnology and nanotechnology.

Italy is also collaborating in the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project, which will be the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever to be constructed. Thousands of SKA antenna dishes will be built in South Africa (in the Karoo, not far from Carnarvon), with outstations in other parts of South Africa, as well as in eight African partner countries.

Another part of the telescope, the low-frequency array, plus more dishes, will be built in Western Australia. At least 13 different countries are already working together to build – and pay for – the SKA, with more joining.

SAASTA's AstroQuiz

AstroQuiz is a competition aimed at Grade 7 learners based on astronomy themes. The project is funded, coordinated and managed by SAASTA, a business unit of the National Research Foundation tasked with engaging the South African public with science and technology. SAASTA invites selected centres to participate in the AstroQuiz. In 2014, 20 centres from all nine provinces participated and assisted in reaching a total of 4404 learners in 1101 schools. Each participating centre is responsible for implementing the project up to the finals, and to liaise with their local Department of Education and schools.

The quiz is run as a knock-out event for teams of four grade 7 learners per school, with each participating school only allowed to field one team. The provincial winners are then brought together for the national finals. Learners stand the chance to win exciting prizes such as electronic tablets and laptop computers.

The telebridging event was organised by:
The Embassy of Italy in Pretoria
Amateur Radio on the International Space Station
Sol Plaatje Primary School (Makhene Drive, Unit 6, Mmabatho, North West)
South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement
South African Space Agency
Italian Space Agency

Listen to an audio recording of the event (Courtesy of Hans van de Groenendaal).

Watch Captain Samantha Cristoforetti in action on YouTube.