With new plans for the first Arab-made satellite fuelling cosmic interest, Benita Adesuyan meets Dubai’s stargazers.
People in Dubai are used to looking up, but one local group in particular likes to look well beyond the tops of the towers and skyscrapers and into the stars and planets that twinkle above the region. The Dubai Astronomy Group (DAG) has been observing and mapping the night sky of Dubai since 1993, and their CEO and founder, Hasan Ahmad Al Hariri, is excited that more people are discovering a different kind of nightlife in Dubai.
‘The group was originally just 40-50 people, but we now have around 3,000 members. When the group was just starting out, we held a lecture, and only one person showed up; now we have a camp in Sharjah and we get up to 5,000 people coming to events.’
A big city such as Dubai, with the drawback of lots of light pollution, isn’t the obvious choice for stargazing, but according to Al Hariri, some local conditions mean the emirate is actually a perfect place to study the night sky. ‘The beautiful thing is that we have 300 days of cloudless skies. We get some dust and humidity but when you go to the mountains and desert there are beautiful locations where you can have great observations of the sky. We are people who are looking for dark locations. Light pollution kills us, so we are always running away from the light.’
Staring out of your apartment window, you might not see much more than the moon and an aircraft warning light glowing in the distance, but this group heads to the mountains where they can study the stars and planets without interruption. ‘We go to mountain hideouts, some of the locations are desolate and difficult to get to. There are a few favourite places, but we don’t say where because they are not easy to reach and people shouldn’t go alone – if you go with the group, we can support each other and be cautious. We are always inviting people to our camp in Sharjah, where we do a lot of activities.’
Even His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has an interest in space exploration and announced the first Arab-made satellite in December. The satellite is an advancement that DAG welcome ‘It’s an amazing project – we totally support it. We are partners with the organisational team that are building the satellite. It’s a good move for astronomy in general. It is critical to have these kind of developments.’
So what will observers see in the skies above the emirate? ‘You can see meteor showers, they are a beautiful thing,’ says Al Hariri excitedly. ‘Scientists predict there will be a meteor storm in May. In a meteor shower there 200 meteors per hour, if conditions are perfect, but in a storm you’re talking about over 1,000 meteors per hour. It’s an amazing opportunity for people in the Middle East to witness and observe this storm. This could be a once in a lifetime opportunity and we’ll be at the front seat of it here in Dubai.’
Talk of studying planets, meteors and stars may be a bit daunting but Al Hariri assures that you don’t need to be Captain Kirk to appreciate the stars. ‘It’s open to anyone. We just love to talk about astronomy to everybody. We are now planning to have an international astronomy group. You don’t need any equipment – anyone can join the group at any level, and we are providing the tools for our members to come and enjoy and use. So you don’t need to have anything.’
DAG runs an Open Door session every Tuesday evening at its camp in Sharjah, so anyone who’s curious about astronomy can find about new projects that the group is working on, meet Al Hariri and the team and get involved with observations, tours and sightings. ‘We are running training courses for individuals, groups and schools and we are encouraging all our members to interact with the community. There is one sky above everybody – we are here to help everyone around the world enjoy it.’ Dhs110 for standard annual membership, Dhs220 advanced. Tuesday 6pm-9pm, Saturday Astronomy Forum 6pm-9pm. Sharjah, exit 64, E611 (Emirates Road), DAG Astronomy Camp www.dubaiastronomy.com (04 441 0775).
Facts about astronomy in the Middle East
Did you know…? • The eighth through to the 14th centuries are known as the Islamic period. During this time most astronomical activity took place in the Middle East, North Africa and Moorish Spain.
• Khalifa Sat will be the third UAE satellite to be put into orbit but it is the first that is locally built. It is set to be launched in 2017.