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Stars within reach: Al Sadeem Observatory's mission to connect people with the cosmos

Stars within reach: Al Sadeem Observatory's mission to connect people with the cosmos
22 Feb 2024 09:09

ISIDORA CIRIC (ABU DHABI)

In the serene expanse of Al Wathba, far removed from the bright lights of the city, the Al Sadeem Observatory stands tall as a hub for star observation and astronomy education. Founded by Thabet Al Qaissieh in loving memory of his brother, an avid astronomy enthusiast, and in collaboration with Alejandro Palado, Al Sadeem serves not only as an observatory, but as a tribute to a beloved sibling whose passion for the stars continues to inspire.

Surender Ponnalagar, Al Sadeem's Senior Observatory Technician and Astronomer, delved deeper into the inner workings of the observatory, showcasing its dual-hatted purpose: to simplify astronomy for the general public, and to contribute to international scientific research.

The location of the observatory was purposefully chosen to escape the city's light pollution, allowing visitors to witness the beauty of thousands of twinkling stars set against the dark night sky. "We are trying to help people explore the sky. So, in the city, we have difficulty to see the stars because of the light pollution. We are located far away from city so that people can see countless stars upon their arrival here - that's what makes it truly magical," Ponnalagar told Aletihad.

A Taste of the Cosmos

Al Sadeem, which means "nebula" in Arabic, embodies the observatory's mission to make the awe-inspiring aspects of space accessible to everyone. "Here, one significant highlight for our visitors is the opportunity to observe at least one nebula.  

They get the chance to see stars, planets, and even witness the birth of stars," Ponnalagar explained. What makes Al Sadeem special is that, besides offering a novice-friendly way to interact with the cosmos, the observatory's passionate staff is deeply committed to sharing their knowledge and love for astronomy with the public.

This is vividly reflected in visitor experiences, such as that of Hilda from the UK, who described the staff's love for their work as a key factor that kept her and her family engaged throughout the tour. "Surender's enthusiasm in his job and presentation was infectious and kept me focused on his every explanation.

The 2-hour tour turned into a 3-hour crash course on the solar system," she told Aletihad. Hilda's sister-in-law, Shiva, who also participated in the tour, echoed these sentiments, highlighting the observatory's knowledgeable staff. "I thought it was fascinating and not something you see every day, like a star being born. We heard a lot of interesting information about the sky above us," Shiva told Aletihad, while her son, Kian, strongly recommended the tour to anyone who has an interest in astronomy.



As Ponnalagar puts it - the observatory is not just about gazing at the stars; it's about engaging with them. "So, we are conducting research and engaging in astrophotography, while simultaneously offering guests and visitors the chance to experience firsthand what we are actually doing," Ponnalagar elaborated, highlighting visitors' access to advanced equipment like the Vaonis Vespera smart telescope, which allows them to capture celestial phenomena through their smartphones.

"One of the many best moments was seeing the surface of the moon with all its dips through the telescope. The whole experience left me in awe of how massive our galaxy is and how insignificant Earth is in comparison," Hilda said.

Another standout feature at Al Sadeem is the innovative "Cosmic Cube", a recently implemented project that provides visitors with an immersive, 360-degree view of the cosmos. The cube, outfitted with strategically placed mirrors, showcases 3D-rendered images of stars, nebulas, and planets, most of which were captured by the Al Sadeem team. "When people get inside, they feel like they're in a different space.

Most of the data and imagery displayed inside the cube are taken with our telescopes and converted into 3D. This enables visitors to not only see, but also feel the experience - you can see nebulas and star clusters very close to your eyes, and there is a lot of movement," Ponnalagar explained.


Education and Research

Another aspect of Al Sadeem's work is its educational outreach, offering students hands-on astronomical experiences and fostering the next generation of astronomers. "During December, January, and February, we see a significant increase in school visits," Ponnalagar shared, highlighting collaborations with institutions like New York University Abu Dhabi and Khalifa University.

For those aspiring to explore space science, Ponnalagar offered straightforward advice: "Space science is not really difficult...once you're curious, just get into it, put your commitment in, and you can get into the field." Beyond its local impact, Al Sadeem reaches out internationally, collaborating with organisations like the Centre for Astro, Particle, and Planetary Physics at New York University – Abu Dhabi, the International Astronomical Union, and the American Association of Variable Star Observers.

"Internationally, we are closely working with various organisations to contribute some variables or observation data," Ponnalagar said.

The observatory's endeavours have been made official with the two observatory codes they received from the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center (M43) and the American Association of Variable Star Observers (OAAA) in 2019.

Ponnalagar shared a recent anecdote highlighting the observatory's global reach and collaborative spirit. "Very recently, a researcher from Japan reached out to us. We had collected data on a supernova, which we uploaded to an international community portal.

She found our data and asked if she could use it for her research. We were thrilled to agree. We want to contribute that kind of data. So this is how we are trying to make our astronomy too accessible to the international community as well."


Celebrating Arab Astronomy and UAE's Achievements


Rooted in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Sadeem also plays a crucial role in preserving and sharing the region's astronomical heritage by educating its visitors on the UAE's space programme and how ancient cultures once used the stars for navigation, further enriching the experience with stories of the constellations identified uniquely within the Arabian sky.

"When visitors come here, we focus on preserving our heritage, because in the desert, people have traditionally used the sky for navigation. We also discuss the UAE space programme, so that tourists who come from outside are aware of the strides the country makes," Ponnalagar noted.

The UAE's growing focus on space exploration, highlighted by the achievements of astronauts like Dr. Sultan Al Neyadi, the first Arab to perform a spacewalk and serve on the International Space Station, serves as an inspiration across the nation.

Ponnalagar sees this as a pivotal moment for the country's youth, stating, "nowadays, they have the examples here - somebody from their own country actually went to space." Such milestones not only elevate the UAE's position in the global space community, but also ignite the imaginations of future generations, he explained, adding that during each school tour, at least one student inquires about the possibility of joining a space exploration programme. "In the UAE, there are numerous examples showcasing the country's commitment to space.

Our team is facilitating access, and the government is actively working to position space as a vital economic sector." Al Sadeem Observatory, through its educational initiatives and public engagement, plays a crucial role in the UAE's vision for a science-literate society that looks to the stars with wonder and ambition. "I would highly recommend a tour at Al Sadeem, whether you are an avid stargazer, or a novice like me, because there is something to learn for everyone," Hilda said.

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