An act of kindness changed the course of John Bosco Habarulema’s life. Today he is recognised as one of Africa’s leading space scientists and in December, Habarulema received the American Geophysical Union’s 2016 Africa award for research excellence.
But 22 years ago, when he was 14, this achievement was unimaginable. For one thing, he did not know what space science was.
The third child of subsistence farming parents in Uganda, there was never a lot of money for his education. “There was a bit of a push from my parents to go to primary school, but after that, it was a self-driven thing,” he says on the phone from his office at the Hermanus campus of the South African National Space Agency (Sansa).
His secondary school was 14km from home and he walked there and back every weekday. “Every morning, I was late. So whatever punishment there was for coming late, I received it every day.”
His principal, the late David Rwarinda, noticed the consistently tardy student and when he discovered the reason, offered Habarulema accommodation closer to the school.
“He showed me in the evening where to go, but it was actually his own home…. We had not known each other before, until he saw me being late every day.”
Rwarinda sponsored his bright student until he completed his A-levels, the equivalent of SA’s matric. The Ugandan government gives its top 2,000 pupils a university scholarship.
“I said to myself, ‘This is my opportunity to go to university if I work hard’. That’s how I went to university; without that, I don’t think I’d have graduated,” Habarulema says.
After completing a BSc at Uganda’s Mbarara University of Science and Technology, he applied to SA’s National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme. The programme took its first students in 2003 as a way to increase the number of astronomers and space scientists in the country.
It aims to “create human capacity in astronomy and space science, particularly in underrepresented communities”, says its director, Dr Kurt van der Heyden, of the University of Cape Town (UCT).
“[We aim] to build a cohort of scientists at the core of an international network of African astronomers, space scientists and citizens, who are bonded by the common experience of schooling, interlinked both professionally and personally and able to make a major contribution to the transformation of society.”
The number of applicants continues to grow, along with SA and the continent’s astronomy ambitions. While UCT has historically been the hub of the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme project, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and North-West University are also taking students.
“We are currently in the process of fund-raising, especially to fund foreign African students,” Van der Heyden says.
For many budding astronomers and space scientists, the programme is their introduction to these fields. Since its inception, it has graduated 195 honours students and 158 master’s students.
“When I applied to the University of Cape Town to be part of the programme, it was the first time I heard about space science,” Habarulema says.
After completing his master’s he began an ambitious PhD: to map the ionosphere of Southern Africa. The ionosphere is a charged layer in the atmosphere that affects many facets of modern life. Long-distance radio communications bounce off it to reach someone on the other side of the globe.
This is particularly important on the African continent, where long-range communications are still very common. GPS signals from satellites also pass through the ionosphere.
But the ionosphere is not static: because the atoms are charged, they are at the whim of the sun, whose electromagnetic emissions distort this atmospheric layer.
One way of characterising the ionosphere is through electron density. When an atom becomes charged, it loses electrons, which are negatively charged particles that form part of all noncharged atoms.
By determining the number of electrons in a given part of the ionosphere, it is possible to see how signals will be distorted when they come into contact with the charged layer.
There is little information about how the ionosphere behaves over Africa.
Habarulema’s doctorate looked specifically at part of the Southern African Development Community, but “when I started expanding it over the entire African continent, then I found that some of the instrumentation [needed to take ionospheric measurements] was not there or inadequate, so I turned to space-based instruments”.
Using this data, the space scientist is expanding Africa’s ionospheric maps with the assistance of postgraduates across the continent, many of whom he co-supervises with academics from their home countries.
“I take it personally because we cannot develop [as a continent] if we only develop one country and leave the other ones. In the end, you’re going to have a skills gap when you move from one region to another, so the best thing in my view is to try and develop everyone where they are,” he says.
But the reality is that the continent does not need many space scientists. Even in SA, which has a comparatively well-developed space science sector and a relatively well-resourced space agency, there are not enough positions for space scientists.
“It is a bit unrealistic for us to think that whoever we train will be employed by Sansa or within the space science domain. But space scientists are trained to solve problems and those skills can be transferred from one domain to another,” he says.
“That’s what we need: problem solvers. Where they solve problems is not the issue, as long as they are contributing to the development of the economy.”
When honouring Habarulema with its award for research excellence, the American Geophysical Union said: “He is a role model for young African scientists and is very actively involved in supporting young scientists and improving the science infrastructure across the African continent.”
Habarulema was the first person from his family to obtain a degree but has been followed by his siblings. “I have brothers and sisters and, luckily, because I’ve come up, they have studied now. I have one who is a mathematician, another who is a graduate of statistics and economics, and two graduates of development studies.”