People carrying lanterns watch the sky at night during the annual Perseid meteor shower in El Escorial, outside Madrid, Aug. 13, 2015.

This Senegalese astronomer is helping NASA measure asteroids in space

NASA is working with Senegalese astronomers to measure the dimensions of asteroids in outer space. Astronomer Maram Kaire speaks with The World's host Marco Werman about the work of "chasing after the shadow cast by the asteroids."

The World

Measuring the dimensions of an asteroid hundreds of millions of miles in outer space is not an easy task — but there is a way.

The asteroid needs to pass in front of a bright star. When that happens, you snap a picture and you can see its silhouette. When NASA wanted to do this for one particular asteroid, the angle for the photo was elusive. But they knew that the asteroid was passing directly above Senegal. So, they got in touch with astronomers there.

Maram Kaire, a top Senegalese astronomer aspiring to build a space agency for his country, was one of them. His story, "Star Chasers of Senegal," is airing on NOVA, produced out of GBH in Boston.

Kaire discussed the project, and his personal journey, with The World's host Marco Werman.

Marco Werman: What was your reaction when NASA contacted you for help in coming up with the dimensions of this asteroid?
Maram Kaire: It was just like a dream [come] true, because when I was young at 12, I start being interested in astronomy, particularly in space science in general. And, you know, when you are a young boy here in Africa, in West Africa, in Senegal, dreaming about stars, about planets and so on, one of the most important words you keep in your mind is "NASA." And it was incredible to receive this attention from Mr. Marc Buie [for the] stellar occultation for NASA. We can understand how important it is for the Lucy mission to get this kind of data. Just living in my dream and it's wonderful.
So, the Lucy mission that you mentioned, it was all about capturing that occultation, which is when the asteroid passes in front of a bright star. When you worked with NASA, you and other astronomers in Senegal were taking pictures of that. What were the challenges?
Well, the first challenge is to know precisely where to put your telescope, because we are chasing after the shadow cast by the asteroids. It's a very, very tight and short precise moment. You know, the asteroids will pass between the Earth and the star, and usually it's about 1 to 3 seconds. So, you have to be at the right place recording the data at the right moment. So, like Marc Buie used to say, if you don't get the data at the right moment, you don't get the data ever.
It's really incredible. In the NOVA episode that airs tonight, Maram, you explain your own path to astronomy. [Clip from documentary: "I started to read books and getting out to observe the stars, constellations. I was 12, and I decided to start to build my own telescope. And this is how things began and never stopped."] Yeah, you never stopped. I've got to ask you, Maram, do you still have that telescope you built when you were 12? 
Yeah. You know, just listening to this part remind me that maybe all my life is just like a challenge. So, when I was 12, I started maybe watching the sky. My father thought, at this time, that buying a telescope is not a very good thing to do. So, it was very difficult for me. I kept on [looking at] some books with pictures of telescopes, dreaming about them. And one day, I decided just to build it by myself. So, it was one year searching, finding pieces for building this telescope. But in the end, it worked. And I had my own telescope doing things like this. If I can't have any kind of help to do it, I have to do it by myself. So, this is why we never stopped [trying] to create vocations for the young generation and telling them that it is possible to do things here in Africa by themselves.
Yeah. What a great lesson. I mean, it's interesting, Senegal does not have a modern space program, not yet, anyway — I know that's one of your ambitions — but when you became interested in astronomy, you dug into your country's history. And I gathered that history with the stars went a lot deeper than you expected. What did you learn about Senegal's history with astronomy?
We started talking about astronomy, but also discussing about the importance of science and astronomy for religious communities here in Senegal. You know, 95% of Senegalese people are Muslim and they used to watch the sky. You know, in Islam, we have five prayers in a day. So, you have to know precisely when to start praying. One day, I was asked to give a help, maybe to find the right position of the new crescent for beginning the holy month of Ramadan for fasting. The fact is that there is some very important person in the Muslim community here in Senegal who used to deal with astronomy in the past, like Sheikh Mbacke Bousso, who we talk about in the documentary, and Sheikh Hady Toure and so on. So, some people who used to practice astronomy just to find the right direction to Mecca, it is something very far in the history of Senegal that people used to watch the stars and the sun and the moon to have a sort of calendar.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Related: NASA’s iconic image of Earth still inspires 50 years later. Fmr astronaut Mae Jemison reflects on it.

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