Love for the night sky leads Emirati to build the UAE’s first space observatory

A childhood passion for stargazing led amateur astronomer Thabet Al Qaissieh to build the country's first space observatory at a cost of Dh750,000.

Emirati Thabet Al Qaissieh has built the Al Sadeem Observatory on his family’s farm in Al Wathba and is inviting the public to use the facility to further their understanding of astronomy and to promote the space sector amongst youth. Antonie Robertson / The National
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ABU DHABI // The creation of the UAE’s first community observatory can be traced back to two men’s childhood passion for stargazing.

Located in Al Wathba, Al Sadeem (the Nebula in Arabic) Observatory is the brainchild of an Emirati businessman who fell in love with Al Ain’s night sky and a Filipino expat who studied the sky over the northern Ilocos region of the Philippines.

Childhood years spent in Al Ain in the 1980s deepened Thabet Al Qaissieh’s interest in astronomy. But it was not until 2015 that the 34-year-old decided to get an even closer look at the sky at the eventual site of the observatory.

“We have a farm in Al Wathba where I spend a lot of time in the winter. One night I was sitting by myself and the sky was very clear. I told myself that I should get a telescope,” Mr Al Qaissieh said.

His quest for advice on the perfect instrument led him to Alejandro Palado, 46, who founded the Abu Dhabi Astronomy Group when he moved to the capital in 2005.

Mr Palado, an amateur astronomer, was disappointed that there was no such group at the time.

“From my studies back home, I knew Arabs were one of the first practitioners of astronomy, so I was expecting Abu Dhabi to have lots of facilities and groups focused on the science,” he said.

With social media then in its infancy, Mr Palado had to rely on email groups and blogging sites to garner interest in his group. That proved to be slow going initially but it gathered pace in 2011 when he began staging viewing events.

When he was contacted for advice by Mr Al Qaissieh, who told him about his family farm, Mr Palado asked if he could visit with his telescope and take photos.

Mr Palado thought the farm would be ideal for stargazing and suggested to Mr Al Qaissieh that they build an observatory for the community.

“He [Mr Palado] told me there was a lot of interest in astronomy in Abu Dhabi but there wasn’t a place to bring people together,” said Mr Al Qaissieh.

Despite his hesitance over business commitments and the cost of building an observatory, Mr Al Qaissieh said he was convinced by his younger brother Mansour.

“He said, ‘Thabet, you’re not going to make money out of it but you will be giving so much to the community’.”

When Mansour died at 23 in August 2015, Mr Al Qaissieh put his observatory plan into action.

Eight months and Dh750,000 later, the Al Sadeem Observatory was opened last summer, complete with a dome that was custom-made in Poland and a 16-inch (406 millimetres) telescope.

Mr Al Qaissieh said he had goosebumps after seeing his first image through the telescope – Saturn’s rings.

“It almost looks fake, it’s too good to be true,” he said.

Despite being able to see details of the Moon, Mr Al Qaissieh said he had yet to find evidence of lunar landings.“We are still looking,” he said.

In his brother’s honour, Mr Al Qaissieh had a spherical metal sculpture representing the planets with Mansour’s graffiti signature in the middle put up next to the observatory.

Since the observatory’s opening, Mr Al Qaissieh and Mr Palado have regularly held events for the public and institutes. The biggest was for 70 people who attended a viewing of a supermoon in November.

A supermoon occurs when a full moon or new moon coincides with the Moon’s closest approach to Earth. Forty students from New York University Abu Dhabi’s astronomy club camped overnight late last year.

Mr Al Qaissieh and Mr Palado are using the observatory in the hopes of inspiring interest in astronomy in the youth and local communities.

“If, after five years, I find out a single child decided to pursue any of the related disciplines of astronomy because of a visit to my observatory, then I have achieved my purpose,” said Mr Al Qaissieh.