Even from outer space, UAE's progress is visible

From a few scattered settlements half a century ago, the UAE has become a nation known for buildings ambitious enough to be seen from space.

As this satellite photo shows, the distinctive red Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, centre, and even its yellow prancing horse logo, is one of the man-made structures in the UAE that can be seen from space. Courtesy Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology
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"The earth looked very beautiful," Yang Liwei announced after becoming the first Chinese astronaut, then dolefully added: "But I did not see our Great Wall."

His admission helped to finally debunk an assertion that had become as prevalent as it was nonsensical: that the Great Wall of China was the only constructed object on the earth that could be seen from the moon.

The claim was first aired about 30 years before the Montgolfier brothers began human flight with their hot air balloons in 1873, and, like the similarly nonsensical but repeated assertion that one quarter of the world's cranes were in Dubai at the height of the boom, it failed to withstand even the most modest scrutiny.

Simple mathematics showed that with the moon more than 350,000 kilometres away from the surface of the earth and with the vast majority of the Great Wall being less than 10 metres wide, seeing it would be the equivalent of trying to see a human hair from a distance of 3km.

The mundane reality is that no constructed object on Earth can be seen from the moon, but there are an increasing number of objects that can be seen from space and the UAE now has a disproportionate share of them.

Just what can be seen from space depends in part on the definition of where the earth's atmosphere ends and space begins. The most popularly accepted one is known as the Karman line, which begins at an altitude of 100km above sea level, or about 11 times the height of Mount Everest.

Virgin Galactic qualifies as space flight by reaching about 110km and the minimum altitude for sustainable low-earth orbit is deemed to be 160km. The space shuttle used to orbit at about 220km and the International Space Station stays at an altitude slightly under 400km.

The irony for Yang Liwei is that he had been at an altitude of about 330km for his 14 orbits of the earth in 2003 and the American-born astronaut Ed Lu reported that he was able to see the Great Wall from the International Space Station two years earlier, but only because the sun was near the horizon so the wall cast a long shadow that made it stand out.

The general lower threshold for being able to be seen from space with the naked eye is the Great Pyramid of Giza, the base of which is 230m long on each side.

Considering that there was no single constructed object in the UAE capable of being seen from space only a generation ago, the country's emergence as one of the world centres for mega-objects is all the more impressive.

That was demonstrated in late April when the International Space Station orbited over the Middle East at night and its commander - the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who was then a fortnight away from becoming an internet sensation with his in-space recording of the David Bowie song Space Oddity - took photographs of Dubai then posted them on Twitter.

The Palm Jumeirah was "like a trilobite in the night", he said. Two months earlier he had posted photographs of the Palm and the World islands in the daytime.

Astronauts occasionally post images of cities from space and invite their followers to guess where it was. But Hadfield didn't bother with Dubai, for which the created landscape was so distinctive and recognisable as to render the question pointless.

That distinctiveness is all the more impressive given that the UAE had barely a single object visible from space 10 years ago.

Just down the E11, Abu Dhabi now boasts several. One is Ferrari World, the roof of which covers 200,000 square metres, or about four times the footprint of the Great Pyramid of Giza. As if that didn't automatically put it in the category of being visible from space, it is also painted in Ferrari red and emblazoned with a 65m-tall version of the supercar manufacturer's Cavallino Rampante ("prancing horse") logo.

Emirates Palace, at about 400m long, also exceeds the pyramid in size but all those structures in Abu Dhabi will be dwarfed by the Midfield Terminal Complex, the replacement for Abu Dhabi's current international airport.

When it's completed in 2017, it will be Abu Dhabi's biggest building, with floor space of up to 700,000 square metres, or 13 times the footprint of the Great Pyramid.

Even when the Midfield Terminal is completed, Abu Dhabi's first object capable of being seen from space will still rate as the biggest: Lulu Island. The 424 hectare island was entirely reclaimed from the sea off the Corniche and was completed in 1992, complete with red sand brought in specifically to create dunes.

But one of the earliest and quirkiest of the UAE's seen-from-space objects is no more. In 2005, dredgers began excavating part of the southern shore of Futaisi island, south-west of Abu Dhabi island.

Over the next three years, the letters "HAMAD" were formed by canals to form a word spanning 1.6km. But in 2010, the letters began to be filled in and by May last year, they were gone, with only the signs of disturbed ground to hint at what once had been.

The notoriety of the Hamad canal reflected one of the corollaries of Google Earth's popularity. An entire culture has sprung up around the global oddities revealed by the satellite images.

Google began the habit of stating when it would be updating its imagery, prompting those seeking their 15 minutes of fame to make their mark. In 2007, what was described as a "geek weekend" took time out to lay paper in the California desert in the shape of - appropriately - space invaders.

In the desert in neighbouring Nevada the year before, fast-food purveyors KFC created what it dubbed the first "astrovertisement" - an advertisement visible from space - by using 65,000 red, white and black tiles. It took six days to construct.

But KFC's claim to the first was more than 40 years too late. On the unrelenting flatness of the Nullarbor desert in Australia, a mammoth 3.2km by 1.6km facsimile of the logo of the construction materials company Readymix was created under the transcontinental flight path. Nearly 50 years later, it's still visible, albeit far less distinct that it once was.

Others had corporate or political motivations for their own efforts to create messages that, like Peru's Nazca lines, only make sense when viewed from the sky.

Coca Cola's centenary in 1986 was commemorated in the desert of Arica in Chile by creating a 142m-long facsimile of the company's logo out of around 70,000 old bottles of the product.

Chile was also the scene of Raul Zurita's 3km-long bulldozer-created statement "Ni pena ni miedo" (Neither pain nor fear), in response to the way he suffered abuse during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

But it paled in size against the work of Australian artist Ando, who used a tractor to create what was dubbed Mundi Man, an image of a behatted stockman covering an area of four square kilometres on the Mundi Mundi plain in the Australian outback. The stockman's mouth was as long as New York's Empire State Building is tall and is still credited as the biggest artwork ever created.

Even in this category, the UAE is in the top league. Or will be if the envirionmental artist Christo receives approval for his planned installation in the desert of the Empty Quarter. The Mastaba will be a trapezoid of 410,000 oil barrels that stands 150m high and with a slightly bigger footprint than the Great Pyramid of Giza.