Kenya’s travelling telescope brings Supermoon even closer

On Monday (November 14) Kenyan astronomer, Susan Murabana set up her telescope at a remote village in the Rift Valley to see the largest, brightest full moon in nearly seven decades. Murabana takes her telescope to various parts of the country to teach people about the stars and planets. Her initiative is also aimed at getting more children interested in science.

MAGADI, KENYA (NOVEMBER 14, 2016) (REUTERS) – It’s the closest the moon has been to earth in 68 years. Stargazers and curious pastrolists in Kenya’s Rift Valley town of Magadi, were among millions of people around the world watching as the largest, brightest full moon made its way across the skies on Monday (November 14).

The Supermoon, also known as a blood moon, was produced when the shadow of Earth cast a reddish glow on the moon, the result of a rare combination of an eclipse with the closest full moon of the year.

The next supermoon-lunar eclipse combination will not happen until 2033.

For astronomy enthusiast, Susan Murabana and her travelling telescope, this cosmic event was a rare opportunity to teach local communities about space and also to learn.

“We wanted to check out the moon with locals from this community just to see if we could get some traditional stories from them as well, but we also wanted to get out of the city so that we could have a good, clear eastern sky so that we could get the moon rising,” said Murabana.

Ancient Africans looked to the stars to measure time, weather and seasons as well as inspire legends, folklore and myths. Early scholars also studied the moon and the stars to build theories around mathematics and religion.

“There are stars that we use to predict the rainfall patterns, for example the one that is seen from the east, and the other from the west. For example, when the moon comes from the east while it is red in colour, we know that there will be a drought,” said an assistant chief of a Maasai village, Stephen Kureko Lemaiyan.

The history and science of the stars fascinates Murabana so much that she has made it her mission to educate children and adults about it through the Travelling Telescope – a project dedicated to promoting science and technology using astronomy.

Murabana and her team work with schools in Kenya and some in neighbouring Tanzania to study the night sky using computerized telescopes.

Before she joined the project, Murabana was studying economics at the Nairobi University. It was not until a group of graduate astronomers came to Kenya and worked with Murabana that revived her love for science.

She says children need to be exposed to astronomy.

“I was still doing my degree in economics at university and I met a group of scientists, at that time most of them were grad students and they had come to Africa to promote science or to teach science using readily available materials, and I was reconnected to the science I once loved in school and I also saw the power of…. you know using things that are readily available and seeing how kids were very excited to learn and I was like I wish I had this in school, and I wanted to do that. I wanted to get back to schools, get back to communities and share science because science is all around us,” she said.

The initiative has reached close to 40,000 students in East Africa.

While the study of stars makes for just a small part of school curriculum here, Murabana and the Travelling Telescope are trying to excite the minds of students to the wonder of the night sky and how relevant the subject can be.

“They have been making plans to send people to Mars in the few coming years. We have also learnt how to cope with life in space, apart from other stories I have heard from people talking about space and other movies about space. It has been very exciting to get to know about the real thing,” said Shammah Kendi, a student.

“Some of them have come to us and said “oh we’d like to go into astronomy or we’d like to, you know go into engineering, we really think it’s cool…” and what we try to do is really encourage kids not just into astronomy but emphasise that there is a lot of science in astronomy. The engineers who build the spacecrafts, the computer scientists who help with the programs, the biologists, the chemists, so we’ve got very positive responses, and we still think there is potential, there is still a lot of work, there still so much numbers to reach, and we hope we get to do that,” said Murabana.

Murabana recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to build a public observatory and planetarium that would be the first of its kind in East Africa.

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