Sharjah’s planetarium offers a journey into our past and future

In a few weeks, anyone will be able to see what astronauts have seen from the comfort of a velvety-blue seat inside the region’s largest planetarium, the Sharjah Centre for Space Sciences and Astronomy.

From the beginning of time, mankind has been fascinated by the night sky. A planetarium in Sharjah will now enable us to get closer.

“But nay! I call to witness the revolving stars, the planets that run their course and set.” Quran Chapter 81, Verses 15-16

Mankind has always been fascinated by space, by the sparkle of stars, the celestial patterns and the changing moods and phases of the Sun and Moon.

Only a few have been there, walking in space, setting up satellites and stepping on the Moon.

In a few weeks, anyone will be able to see what astronauts have seen; they will be able to travel across the solar system, across the universe and even land on the Moon, from the comfort of a velvety-blue seat inside the region’s largest planetarium, the Sharjah Centre for Space Sciences and Astronomy.

The first impression inside the 209-seat projection hall is the silence. Then complete darkness, before the universe slowly comes alive with its galaxies, stars, planets and other celestial objects.

The dome-shaped room, with its 18-metre hemisphere, was built at an angle tilted at 10 degrees, to provide greater comfort so spectators do not have to look upwards from seats set in stadium-style rows. “You will feel as if you are flying through space,” says astrophysicist Professor Hamid Al Naimiy, chancellor of the University of Sharjah.

A Star Ball, a Japanese optical instrument that emits a brilliant star field of more than 10 million individual stars, is combined with seven special projectors for the Sun, Moon and the five planets visible from Earth, to produce a breathtaking interactive model of the observable universe, extending up to 13.7 billion light years from Earth.

“We want to show how remarkable our world is, how magnificent the universe is, and how small we really are in the grander scheme of things,” says Prof Al Naimiy.

With titles and positions that include the presidency of the Arab Union for Astronomy and Space Sciences, and a member of the International Astronomical Union, the Iraqi scientist oversees a project that was envisioned by Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah and president of the University of Sharjah, in April 2013.

Set to open in mid-April as part of phase one, Prof Al Naimiy takes The National on a tour of the round building and its gardens, covering 40,000 square metres of a fenced area inside the University City of Sharjah.

The most magnificent and visible feature, which can be seen from miles away, is the Golden Ceramic Dome constructed by a Spanish subcontractor.

“His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan drew this golden dome. He wanted it to be like the Sun, and the gardens around the centre, the planets of the solar system,” says Prof Al Naimiy, showing handwritten notes and drawings in red pen by Dr Sheikh Sultan on the actual plans.

His notes have materialised into reality over the past two years with the Swedish Sciss company that creates full dome theatres for planetariums, science centres, museums and educational institutions.

“Here is the Milky Way,” says the professor, pointing to an animated movie showing how the flowers and plants will be planted to look like the galaxy in which our solar system lies.

Dr Sheikh Sultan, who has many degrees and honorary titles, has a bachelor of science in agricultural engineering from Egypt, and so will be overseeing the landscaping of the gardens himself.

“He said, ‘Leave that to me’,” says Prof Al Naimiy. There will also be a large Islamic sundial in the roundabout leading to the centre, to honour the Arab Muslim heritage in astronomy and scientific innovations.

“This whole project is to inspire innovations and inventions, and a whole new generation of Arab astronauts, scientists and researchers, with their focus on astronomy and space science, as that is our future,” he says, explaining Dr Sheikh Sultan’s goal behind the vision.

With 2015 named the UAE’s “Year of Innovation”, the opening of this centre plays an important role in the national picture.

“The year 2015 will be a new era for development, excellence and innovation in the UAE, and the emirate of Sharjah is ambitious, despite its limited resources,” said Dr Sheikh Sultan in January.

Last year, Sharjah was the Islamic Culture Capital, and this year, Capital of Arab Tourism.

Back inside the two-storey centre, perched on top of a small hill, the white floors are freshly painted, with the paint still wet during the tour. It is a bright building with purple-blue ceilings and lights flickering like stars along orbiting, carved-out ripples. The ceiling-to-floor windows across its circumference allow for a panoramic view of the gardens and beyond.

“Our goal is to inspire Arabs to dream again, to venture into the world of astronomy and space sciences,” says Prof Al Naimiy.

The astrophysicist built the region’s biggest observatory of the 1980s, in northern Iraq.

It was bombed by the Iranians in the mid-1980s, as war raged between the two countries, and once again in 1991 by American forces during the Gulf War.

On the Sharjah planetarium’s opening night, a special 25-minute documentary commissioned by Dr Sheikh Sultan, Deen Al Qayeema (The Religion of Value), will tell the journey of life.

“Besides the scientific miracles found in the Quran, the documentary will help convey Islam’s moderation, and how it encourages seeking knowledge and understanding of the world around us and beyond,” says Prof Al Naimiy.

About 200 metres away from the main centre is an observatory with a reflector telescope to look out at the galaxies, stars and planets. Connected to it is a refractor telescope to observe the Sun and Moon.

“We will study celestial formations and analyse them with other regional and international astronomy entities,” says Prof Al Naimiy.

There are four ‘stations’ inside the centre, with special simulations and games showing exploratory phases of the universe in different periods, as well as the latest space technologies. “The same way humans have different DNA, so do the stars. Each star has its unique spectrum; it is a star’s DNA,” says Prof Al Naimiy.

There is a machine that allows you to “hear” what it is like in space. There will also be a rocket, a rover, a space shuttle and other intricate models.

Nasa astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made five flights as a space shuttle astronaut, including the first mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993. He visited the Sharjah centre in December.

“All those who went up to space were no different than anyone else, except they had the facilities and the opportunities. So that is what the Sharjah Centre for Space Sciences and Astronomy will provide, that spark to start again,” says Prof Al Naimiy.

“It is not enough to say we had a glorious, golden Islamic civilisation of innovations.

“That was so long ago; we need to do something now and for the future.”

The planetarium opening hours will be posted on the University of Sharjah website.

rghazal@thenational.ae

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