Nestled between the serene family farms of Al Wathba, a rural area located approximately 30-minutes away from central Abu Dhabi, is Al Sadeem Astronomy and Observatory. Inaugurated on June of 2016, Al Sadeem is the capital city’s first privately owned, open for public observatory.
We meet Thabet Al Qaissieh, the Emirati owner and co-founder of Al Sadeem, there on a warm March afternoon, to find out more about why he decided to undergo this unique endeavor.
‘My passion for the night sky started at a young age,’ begins Thabet. ‘I grew up in Al Ain. So, living in a small town, back then, which didn’t have a lot of light pollution, I was exposed to the night sky very often and a curious child’s mind took over and the passion started.’
But years of education in business and international political economy, as well as work in the family business, diverted Thabet’s eyes away from the glistening black sky, until one fateful night, three years ago, that sent that passion rushing through his veins again.
‘Al Sadeem Observatory started with me sitting in our farm in Al Wathba one winter night in 2015. I noticed the sky full of stars and the child’s curious mind came back to me and I wanted to buy a telescope,’ recalls Thabet. ‘At that point in my life, I had no experience in telescopes, never used one, never looked through a telescope!’
‘So, I went online to search for someone who could help me with this purchase of this telescope and I found Abu Dhabi Astronomy Group, started by someone called Alejandro Palado, who organized trips through Facebook friends to the desert for stargazing,’ continues Thabet.
‘I met him. He gave me a few tips on telescopes to buy and asked me if he can come one night to my farm to take pictures with his telescope. Considering the fact that there’s nothing in the farm, I told him he’s more than welcome to. So he came and a few days later he e-mails me basically giving me the idea to start the observatory.’
At first, Thabet, like many of his friends and family members, had his doubts about the idea.
‘I thought it was an absurd idea…something that can’t be done!’ he exclaims.
It was his late brother, Mansoor, who finally managed to convince him.
‘He laid it out for me very simply,’ smiles Thabet. ‘He said: “Thabet, if it works and you cover your expenses, you’re doing something good for the community, you’re doing something good for the country, especially the kids, that might be interested in this [science]. And if doesn’t work and you have to close it down, you’ll have an amazing place to hangout!” So that was the trigger for me to go ahead and do it regardless of all the doubts around me.’
One year, approximately 800,000 AED, and several shipments from abroad later, Al Sadeem- Arabic for nebula – opened its doors for the first time.
Through their research and community outreach programs, Al Sadeem’s busy team of four are trying to introduce astronomy to the general public in the UAE, in a fun and engaging way.
‘If we asked our grandparents, a lot of them would recognize a lot of the stars in the sky because that’s how they got around 50, 60, 70 years ago,’ remarks Thabet.
Because of that and because of our even more ancient ancestors, ‘almost 300- if not more- stars in the sky have Arabic names,’ says Thabet. ‘The first example that comes to mind is a famous star called Betelgeuse.’
The term is said to have derived either from the Arabic ibt al jawza, the underarm of the twin, or yad al jawza, the hand of the twin. It was later altered to Betelgeuse, he explains.
But because of the speedy advancement the region has undergone since the second half of the twentieth century, the younger generations have less of an immediate need to connect with the night sky.
Thabet is hoping to change that through the observatory and its community outreach programs. So far, the team has participated in popular events such as Abu Dhabi’s annual Mother of the Nation Festival, Abu Dhabi Science Week, and has also collaborated with universities such as NYU Abu Dhabi.
Just getting the public to peer through a telescope ‘brings the cosmos closer,’ he says. ‘When it’s closer, when it’s within your grasp, it becomes more engaging, more interesting.’
Through these programs and through visits to the observatory, where visitors are immersed in knowledge about astronomy by the guide, he hopes to encourage the rising generation to study astronomy or the sciences in general.
‘Studying space helps us understand our origins and the origins of our universe. It also helps us understand us as humans and helps us understand earth; how do we prevent droughts, floods…and a lot of the man-made disasters,’ he passionately says.
Through Al Sadeem, Thabet uses astronomy as a gateway to other science disciplines including biology, chemistry, physics, and medicine.
‘All these other science disciplines, STEM disciplines, are integrated within astronomy and its various fields.’
‘With our [Emirates] Mars Mission coming up, and in fact the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre is looking for our next astronauts, we need to build on the interest of kids in general sciences to keep feeding our space program,’ he says.
Al Sadeem is open for the public Monday-Saturday. Send a message here to pre-book your visit: http://alsadeemastronomy.ae/contact-us/ .
Sharifah Alhinai is the Managing Storyteller at Sekka.