Looking to the skies for solutions
A young South African is exploring the secrets of the universe and believes studying the cosmos can teach us many things that we can apply in improving our daily lives.
As an astrophysicist, Sphesihle Makhathini applies the laws of physics and chemistry in an attempt to understand the most massive objects in the universe.
Makhathini (30), who is a doctoral degree holder and an astronomy and astrophysics research fellow at Rhodes University, is based at the Cape Town office of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO). There he listens to and analyses radio waves emitted by the stars and galaxies. He then gathers huge amounts of data and processes it in a bid to better understand the universe.
“There are stars that we can see with our eyes, such as the sun, which is our mother star, and you can see stars that are further away – these are the ones we see in the sky every night. Basically, all this light that we are getting from the stars we can see with our eyes. However, if you could see radio waves, then you would see the sky in a completely different way because of emissions at different wavelengths,” he said.
Makhathini said the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) in Sutherland in the Northern Cape is a leader in optical astronomy and astrophysics.
Makhathini’s field of specialisation focuses on radio wavelengths.
He is creating an algorithm that will allow scientists to process the data collected by the MeerKAT telescope into smaller and more manageable sizes. His work allows scientists all over the world to analyse data gathered from space.
“Over the past five to six years, my interest has been in developing algorithms and software to make sure that data from the MeerKAT radio telescope is processed properly so that the science is easier to do,” he explained.
A benefit that has been reaped from the study of the universe is the advent of MRI machines. Makhathini said the mathematics used in the life-saving equipment is the same formula used in space research. He believes future space research will yield solutions to some of the world’s biggest issues, such as pollution, water and energy challenges.
Addressing global problems
With an increasing number of Africans becoming technically skilled, he is excited at the possibilities of what the continent can contribute to addressing global problems.
The data studied by Makhathini and his colleagues has already given an idea of how gold forms. In 2017, they realised that a kilonova – an explosion caused by the collision of two neutron stars – had led to the formation of gold.
The collision and merging of the neutron stars gives off massive bursts of energy, which forges heavy metals like platinum and gold.
South Africa’s MeerKAT was one of the first radio telescopes to detect radio emission from the aftermath of the collision of the 2017 kilonova.
Makhathini said a second kilonova had recently been detected and he will do research to compare the dynamics of the two kilonovas.
A lecturer at Rhodes University, Makhathini previously worked as a data scientist for SARAO. Though he is now contracted to Rhodes University, he conducts his research using SARAO resources and widely shares his findings.
His interest in the field started while studying Computational Physics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
“When I was in Grade 10, there was a programming course at our school and because I was quite good at programming and science, I wanted to do something in the science and coding fields,” he said.
While doing his honours, Makhathini worked on a computer simulation project that looked at whether a neutron star could collapse into a quark star.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration describes a neutron star as a star between seven and 20 times the mass of our sun. When this type of star runs out of fuel, it collapses under its own weight, crushing its core and triggering a supernova explosion.
Makhathini then did his masters in cosmology, which is the study of the evolution of the universe. He said those who study astrophysics could learn how galaxies are formulated over time. “Astrophysics is the study of how stars and galaxies are born, how they evolve and ultiamtely, how they die. Cosmology is the study of how the universe itself was born, how it evolves and how it will end up,” he said.
He said there are endless opportunities to make new discoveries in both radio astronomy and astrophysics.
“In radio, we can see a totally different sky. Radio astronomy is relatively new compared to optical astronomy and there are more opportunities in radio to make new discoveries,” he told PSM.
He said more young people should consider a career in the world of astrophysics because Africa has the potential to be a world leader in the development of knowledge, given the resources at its disposal.
“If young people participate in the generation of ideas, we can find solutions to our problems instead of waiting on the likes of Bill Gates to come to our aid,” he said.