Dubai astronomy centre prepares to give stargazers an eyeful

Visitors to the Mushrif Park centre can journey through the history of the universe, from the Big Bang to our solar system, as they walk up a curved ramp towards the main observatory.

Hasan Al Harriri, chief executive of Dubai Astronomy Group, says the Al Thuraya Astronomy Centre in Dubai will open in April 2017.  Anna Nielsen for The National
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DUBAI // Stargazers will soon be able to peek deep into the cosmos once the Dh45 million Al Thuraya Astronomy Centre opens its doors to the public.

Hasan Al Hariri, chief executive of Dubai Astronomy Group, is hopeful the centre in Mushrif Park will open by April.

“Work is progressing well and I would say we are almost done,” he said. “The building work is all completed now, so the focus is shifting to installing the technology and other facilities.”

The region’s climate and environment have been among the main challenges for the astronomy group since the inception of the centre.

“We have looked at every aspect of having a centre that will be able to meet the requirements of where we are in the world, so we’ve examined ways of preventing dust and sand getting inside, as well as coping with the hot temperatures and humidity,” said Mr Hariri.

Among the solutions was the use of stainless steel 316, a grade more commonly used in submarines.

“It will be the biggest dome of its kind to house the telescope and we chose this grade of steel to give us the highest protection against corrosion,” he said.

“We’ve designed the structure to withstand category four, 400kph-level winds and it has thermal layers sandwiched inside to make sure the internal climate stays at a level that does not damage the telescope.”

With even these precautions, the telescope will have to remain encased behind its dome during dusty weather or sandstorms.

Construction of the 1.5-metre diameter telescope is expected to be carried out by a Canadian company and should be ready to install later this year.

In the meantime, a 0.5-metre diameter auxiliary telescope will be used until work on the primary instrument is complete.

“The main telescope will be a fantastic bit of technology,” said Mr Hariri.

“It will allow us to study the Sun in amazing detail and will be powerful enough to even detect planets far outside our solar system by seeing the faint dip in light as they pass in front of their stars.”

Visitors to the centre, which is funded by Dubai Municipality, will be greeted by a journey through the history of our universe, from the Big Bang through to our solar system as they walk up a curved ramp towards the main observatory.

“We have designed it to look as though a UFO has landed in Mushrif Park and as people walk in they will be walking in a spaceship,” said Mr Hariri.

The centre will boast a library, cafe, outside observation deck where guests can take their own telescopes, as well as a 100-seat theatre, labs with three-dimensional printers and lecture rooms.

The first phase of the project will have parking spaces for 300 vehicles, increasing to 500 in stage two and potentially 1,000 in stage three.

The landscape around the centre is etched out in constellations and will eventually have play and games centres.

There are also ambitious plans in the the pipeline to create a scale model replica of the International Space Station.

Mohammed Abdullah Qawam, an Emirati who has been a member of Dubai Astronomy Group since 2007, said he was eagerly anticipating the opening.

“This will be a wonderful location where we will be able to share knowledge about astronomy to a wider range of the public,” he said.

Mr Qawam, who works as a sales manager, had his interest in the cosmos sparked as young child and has been stargazing ever since.

“I have my own telescopes and we go out to events organised by the group in the desert to observe the planets and moons,” he said.

“Hopefully, the centre will encourage more people to take an interest in space and the sciences.”

For Mr Hariri and his small team of staff, the centre has been a passion project decades in the making.

“We faced so many hurdles over the years but to finally be so close to opening and being able to share our love of the sciences with the wider community is amazing,” he said.

“For us it’s not about making money, it’s about getting more people inspired in space – that’s why the entry fee is only Dh10.”

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