The Perseid meteor show provides oohs and awe

Unlike last year, stargazers at a Dubai resort enjoy a clear sky and a spectacular show by the annual phenomenon.

DUBAI // They began filing into the resort as night fell, taking their seats on the orange and white bean bags strewn across the lawn. A couple of hours later, at 10pm on Thursday, as Hassan Al Hariri, the head of Dubai Astronomy Group (DAG), set up his telescope and video show, hundreds of stargazers - young and old - lay on their backs at Bab Al Shams resort, staring up at the starry sky in anticipation of the promised Perseid meteor shower.

A year earlier, a similar crowd gathered in the desert nearby were left disappointed when dust and haze had prevented them from seeing the annual astronomy spectacle. But this weekend the conditions were good, with a clear sky and a new Moon, and by midnight the first meteor sightings were drawing gasps of delight from those gathered. "It's pretty interesting," said Vineet Gangal, a 51-year-old Indian expatriate from Delhi who had travelled to the desert resort. "I didn't have very high hopes. I came just to see a couple but we have been able to see more than a dozen. I didn't expect the shower they had talked about."

Seeing the meteors, which sped across the sky intermittently like solitary fireworks, creating a brilliant white trail that disappeared as quickly as it arrived, required steely patience. "Shooting stars will be random at first," Mr al Hariri warned the excited crowd as he gave the first of two presentations that evening. "But as the night goes past, lie down on the ground and look at the sky." The frequency of the meteors would intensify as the evening progressed, he added.

The Perseid shower occurs every summer, when the Earth's orbit passes through debris from the Comet Swift-Tuttle. As the debris, mostly dust and sand, hits the atmosphere at speeds of around 135,000 mph it burns up, producing the trail of light that was visible to spectators on Thursday evening. Mr al Hariri and DAG were focused on using the meteor show to educate the community about astronomy as well as the night's happenings. Moving the event from the desert wilderness and into Bab Al Shams represents an attempt to engage the UAE public more in their work.

"It is a very important science, on a local and international level," Mr al Hariri said. "It is the icon for advancement of any country today. We must create a foundation [of understanding] and build [on it]. That is what is now happening in Dubai. "In 1992 we called an astronomy lecture and only one person came. Look at today, see the difference and the time shift. This is the growth of the nation, the public and its mentality."

The first of two presentations Mr al Hariri gave to the hundreds gathered focused on the historical context of the "mother of all sciences", the Earth's size and the constellations and stars clearly visible that night. "Here you have Cassiopeia and the northern star," he said, pointing at them using a green laser beam. That night, he noted, it was also possible to see the Milky Way - a white, cloudy trail in the velvety sky - and he used his telescope, linked to the large screen, to zoom in on Jupiter, which shone brightly to the east of the source of the meteors.

For budding astronomer Rima Zeidan, 31, from Lebanon, the evening was an opportunity to not only witness an astronomical phenomenon but also to learn from Mr al Hariri. "I just started my interest in astronomy and saw on the website that this was happening," she said, clutching a print-out of the constellations that Mr al Hariri had been using to help her to identify what was above and navigate the sky.

"I want to be a member of DAG, to train. It's a childhood dream." After a steady wave of meteor spottings - including one brilliant, bright fireball, at around 2am - sightings decreased with the arrival of some cloud. Slowly the crowds - many families with young children - began to disperse, happy with what they had witnessed. "This was our first time to see the shower," said Katie Sabbaghian, a 25-year-old psychologist, who was watching with her friend Niveen El-Saleh, a 28-year-old chiropractor,

"I loved it. It's amazing. It is so nice to see the Dubai community coming together for something like this. It's so refreshing." "For it to be on the second night of Ramadan makes it even more special," added Ms El-Saleh.