Maram Kaire, the first Senegalese named after an asteroid

This is a first: an asteroid in the solar system now bears the name of a Senegalese, Maram Kaire. The 42-year-old astronomer has been honored by the International Astronomical Union. Recognition for the president of the Senegalese Association for the Promotion of Astronomy (ASPA). Very invested in promoting the discipline and popularizing his passion, he recently led two missions for NASA in his country.

His name is now etched for eternity in the solar system. Congratulatory messages poured in on his phone and on his Facebook page. But 42-year-old Maram Kaire keeps his feet on the ground. “ I still don’t realize, I welcome the news with humility He said calmly, behind his thin glasses. In the family living room, no charts or telescopes. Just a frame of his decoration to the rank of Knight of the Order of the Lion, received in February 2020.

Until now, the asteroid that bears his name was simply numbered ” 35462 1998 DW 23 ». « A dark object, invisible to the naked eye “. Discovered in 1998 by the French astronomer Alain Maury, it is part of the main belt of celestial bodies orbiting the Sun, between the planets Mars and Jupiter, and ” completes a complete revolution of the Sun in 4.36 Earth years ».

The inner solar system. © RFI

This “appointment”, Maram Kaire owes it to the initiative of friends astronomers, astrophysicists and planetologists, with whom he led two NASA missions – the American space agency – to Senegal, in 2018 and then in September 2020. Missions ” occultation, linked to the use of probes sent to the planets of the solar system ».

After the discoverer’s agreement, a long process followed within the International Astronomical Union. “ I discovered on this occasion that for politicians, it was necessary to wait 100 years after their death for their name to be associated with an object in the solar system. Some people tell me that I can now get into politics! “. He quotes a message from the discoverer Alain Maury after the validation: “ You honor astronomy, it’s normal that astronomy honors you ».

Childhood passion, family reluctance

With Maram Kaire, born in Dakar in 1978, the passion for astronomy began at the age of 12, through reading. Patience in the azure, by astrophysicist Hubert Reeves, is his bedside book. He spends evenings observing the sky, ” much clearer than today, it was less polluted by light “. At 14, he started making his first telescope. A vocation. “ I understood from the start that this was what I wanted to do with my life, I remember saying prayers ».

But we will have to deal with family reluctance. ” It was misunderstood “, He recalls,” people associated astronomy with meteorology, there was mockery, people who said: “you look at the stars, you are going to go crazy” …And here in Senegal, it was not taught at all, so after the baccalaureate, we had to make a compromise with my parents and especially my father ”, For whom the discipline was not adapted to the job market. This compromise will be IT, “ the backbone of astronomy “. Studies in systems and network engineering in France follow.

Maram Kaire at his home in Dakar on July 1st.

Maram Kaire at his home in Dakar on July 1st.

Maram Kaire at his home in Dakar on July 1st. © Charlotte Idrac/RFI

Create vocations

In 2006, return to the country, with one objective: that young people can find courses and infrastructures linked to astronomy on site. With other enthusiasts, he created ASPA, the Senegalese Association for the Promotion of Astronomy. Today it counts ” a hundred members and a thousand sympathizers “. Conferences in schools, workshops, organization of the festival “ Saint Louis under the stars “Between 2008 and 2015,” space bus “campaign, to travel across the country … the goal is to popularize astronomy to the general public and create vocations.

The association also organizes lunar crescent observation sessions for Muslim religious holidays. A spot ” delicate », Underlines Maram Kaire, in a country where different communities regularly have different interpretations. ” The question concerns faith, we must act with great neutrality so as not to clash with positions, and give scientific information ».

“Space, a lever for development”

In the education system, Maram Kaire pleads for a significant introduction of space science. ” Today, a chapter part of the geography program at school is dedicated to the solar system, and it is flown over very quickly », He regrets.

Projects had been launched by Mary Teuw Niane, former Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation (2012-2019), of which Maram Kaire was the technical advisor. In a message on social networks, President Macky Sall congratulates Maram Kaire and assures that “ the government will be at his side in the promotion of astronomy ».

For her part, Mary Teuw Niane writes: “ I dare to hope that this new distinction will push our country to complete the projects of which it was the bearer, such as the astronomical observatory, the planetarium, the Center for the construction of micro satellites and in particular the Senegalese Astronomical Agency. ».

« Space is a lever for development », Adds Maram Kaire. “ For education and distance education, tele-medicine, agriculture, satellite data is a major issue “. So when is an African astronaut on the moon? ” The African Union space agency is considering a space program. But the priority for our countries, as Algeria, Nigeria, Rwanda and many others are already doing, is mastery of satellite technology. », Replies the astronomer,« that we can produce our own communication satellites, satellites for research. This would make it possible to have a first foot in space ».

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