NASA send top-level delegates to Grahamstown's 2015 Scifest Africa

MARCH 2, 2015

Visitors at this year’s Scifest Africa, South Africa’s National Science Festival, will have the opportunity to interact with a top-level NASA delegation including the American space agency’s Chief Scientist, Deputy Chief Technologist, Rosetta Mission Lead Project Scientist, and an astronaut who has logged more than 4,000 hours in space, the organisers said in a statement on Monday.

Participation by these scientists will focus on the John Webb Space Telescope, Mars Exploration Programme, New Horizons Mission, Rosetta Mission and NASA’s plans for a new era of space exploration.

Scifest Africa 2015, celebrating the theme “Science alight!” will be held in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape from 18 to 24 March. Since astronomers are accustomed to measuring distances in light years, the theme will not be a strange concept in this, the United Nations International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies.

NASA presence

One of the highlights of NASA’s presence at the festival will be a panel discussion at 18h30 on 18 March featuring NASA Chief Scientist, Dr Ellen Stofan and NASA Rosetta Mission Lead Project Scientist, Dr Claudia Alexander, joined via Google Hangout from NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC by NASA Associate Administrator: Science Mission Directorate and former astronaut, John Grunsfeld, as well as JWST Senior Project Scientist and Nobel Prize Winner, Dr John Mather.

While one would be forgiven for feeling rather intimidated, and even NASA admits the presence of these great minds in one space is a rare occurrence, this incredible conversation is aimed at the general public and will invite questions from the audience on... well, pretty much anything NASA.

Curiosity Rover drivers

Visitors to the festival will also have the opportunity to meet three drivers of the Curiosity Rover during a Google Hangout at 15h00 on 21 March. The Curiosity Rover, a six-wheeled remote-controlled vehicle that is currently navigating its way through the Gale Crater on the planet Mars, is sure to prompt many questions: Do you need a licence to drive on another planet? What kind of equipment do you need to guide a rover on Mars – a steering wheel, joystick or a keyboard? Who decides on where the Curiosity should go, and how are these decisions reached?

NASA astronaut, Dr Catherine Coleman, will make several public appearances during the festival, sharing her experiences on Space Shuttle Columbia and the International Space Station, and outlining NASA’s plans for a new era of space exploration. Coleman is particularly excited about NASA’s plans to send astronaut Scott Kelly to the International Space Station on a one-year mission.

This mission is set to be the perfect opportunity to learn about how a long stay in space affects the human body, as it will be possible to compare his medical data with that of his twin brother, Mark.

Coleman says, “We will learn about bone and muscle loss, the psychology of living in space for long periods of time, and the effects of space radiation on the human body”.

More opportunities to interact with NASA

NASA Deputy Chief Technologist and Scifest Africa Advisory Committee Member, Jim Adams, returns to Scifest Africa with an update on the technologies developed for aeronautics and space exploration in 2015 that you can use in your everyday life, and will also discuss how the James Webb Space Telescope will use light to peer to the very depths of the Universe in ways that may allow scientists to see almost to the beginning of time

A hot topic for discussion at Scifest Africa will be the New Horizons flyby mission past the dwarf planet Pluto set for 14 July. Awakened from hibernation earlier this year, the 478 kilogramme space probe is hurtling toward Pluto and its five moons at an incredible speed of 50,000 km/hour.

Visitors can join in conversation with NASA Director: Planetary Science Division, Dr Jim Green, at 13h00 on 24 March about how New Horizons is expected to vastly improve our understanding of the composition of Pluto and its large moon Charon and possibly discover additional smaller moons or a ring around the dwarf planet before heading off into the Kuiper Belt.

Sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Scifest Africa remains the largest festival of its kind on the African continent, offering 68,000 visitors of all ages a programme of more than 600 events from which to choose.

Popular events like workshops usually book out early, so keep an eye on for the electronic programme. Contact Scifest Africa on 046 603 1106 or [email protected] for more information.