by Sine Thieme, a writer and mother of four who is new to South Africa and busy chronicling her experiences on her blog, Joburg Expat.
Do you have a budding scientist in your family? Or perhaps you want to groom one? In that case, I can’t think of a better Saturday family outing than the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory. HartRAO is a national research facility in the Magaliesberg, approximately 50 km from Johannesburg. It is open for public visits one Saturday each month from 16:00 to 20:00, and at R45 per adult and R35 per learner (or a maximum R120 per family) it makes for a very inexpensive activity.
The Observatory was built by NASA in the 1960s for the purpose of tracking unmanned US space probes. At 26 metres in diameter, the radio telescope looks very impressive. It is not the largest of its kind, but the only one on the African continent. It is used to measure objects and distances in space by capturing radio waves. It is also linked to other radio telescopes around the world to form a virtual telescope the size of the Earth.
Our recent visit with our family and a group of friends was a complete success. The tours are actually run by an on-site scientist, and there is no limit to the questions you can ask (and have answered!). There are also enough hands-on activities to keep the most fidgety kids interested. We got to shoot water rockets into the air (our kids’ favorite by far), experience how you can spin faster and slower depending on how the weight is distributed, observe sun spots, tell time using a sun dial, power a light bulb by capturing radio waves from the atmosphere, see the moon at close range, carry around moon and planet replicas to get an idea for the various distances from the sun, see a slide show of amazing pictures of our galaxy and beyond, and visit the control room from which the radio telescope is programmed and steered, all the while learning all sorts of very interesting facts. I can’t think of a better way for kids to experience and develop a love for science!
Check out their HartRAO listing on Jozikids for contact and other details