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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Inside the UAE's astronomical centre which helps determines Islamic public holidays

The International Astronomical Center is offering astronomy workshops to children and adults at its headquarters in Al Bateen and in Dubai

Mohammad Odeh, chairman of the International Astronomy Centre, speaks with his team of experts at the International Astronomy Centre HQ in Al Bateen, Abu Dhabi. International Astronomical Center
Mohammad Odeh, chairman of the International Astronomy Centre, speaks with his team of experts at the International Astronomy Centre HQ in Al Bateen, Abu Dhabi. International Astronomical Center

Every month, members of the International Astronomical Center quietly gather on top of Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain equipped with cameras and telescopes pointed toward the night sky.

The moon observation ritual has been ongoing ever since IAC chairman Mohammed Odeh started the Islamic Crescents Observation Project nearly 20 years ago with a small group of international astronomers to record celestial algorithms.

The data compiled by the group project is used to guide the decisions of the official moon-sighting committee, made up of Islamic scholars and scientists, who determine when to begin and end Islamic holidays. Earlier this week, IAC’s data was also used to help determine the dates and prayer timings of the UAE’s first official unified Hijri calendar for 1439.

“Based on crescent sightings, we start Ramadan, we start Eid,” said Mr Odeh. “So these astronomical issues are very important in our community, and our objective is to do important work that benefits our community.”

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When a couple of fireballs streaked across the sky over Saudi Arabia startling the public on two separate nights in a period of one month in 2014, it was Mr Odeh and the IAC that Saudi media and officials called to investigate.

“There was a very bright fire ball in the sky and they asked us to comment on what people had seen,” said Mr Odeh. “At that time no one was aware that it was not a natural object or celestial object. After investigating for about five or six days, we concluded that it was not a natural object, it was not a meteorite. Basically, actually, it was satellite debris.”

The experience prompted the IAC to expand its mandate beyond supplying lunar data for the Islamic Crescents Observation Project.

“We thought about organising a programme to monitor these objects, not only monitor, but we wanted to keep track of such events,” said Mr Odeh.

For the next three years, the centre worked with the UAE Space Agency to establish the UAE Astronomical Cameras Network (UACN), which IAC executive director Samer Hakawati said is the first in the region dedicated to identifying and tracking meteors, meteorites and space debris. The network, which was launched last year, is made up of three stations — one located in the Remah area of Al Ain, another in the Razeen area near the Empty Quarter, about 100km east of Abu Dhabi, and a third along the border with Oman.

Each station has 17 cameras programmed to start recording once a meteor is detected.

Data from the stations are fed into the Cameras for Allsky Meteor Surveillance (Cams) network, a project founded and run by scientist Peter Jenniskens. The American meteor astronomer works at the Seti Institute, a Nasa-affiliated, private, non-profit organisation dedicated to scientific research and education based in California.

“There are no other monitoring stations but us in the Middle East,” said Mr Hakawati. “It’s one of the best stations around the world. We are covering the UAE, but we can observe the whole world.”

Officials from the International Astronomical Center in Abu Dhabi search for the meteorite which landed near Al Raha beach. International Astronomical Center
Officials from the International Astronomical Center in Abu Dhabi search for the meteorite which landed near Al Raha beach. International Astronomical Center

As if timed to test the stations’ readiness, a meteorite shot toward the capital last year just one month after the second station had been inaugurated, lighting up the cameras for their big debut night-time capture.

“From this detection, we were able to calculate the exact trajectory, or path, of the meteor and then we determined the location of impact, which was very close to Abu Dhabi, somewhere close to Al Raha Mall,” said Mr Odeh.

An IAC team scoured the area for hours but only turned up Earthling treasures, like rocks and asphalt.

“We estimated its diameter to be between one and three centimetres only,” said Mr Odeh. “So, to find such a small stone in an area, which was about 3 kilometres by 5 kilometres, it was very challenging.”

Following the flashes of light over Saudi in 2014, the IAC also launched the Satellite Re-entry Watch, an educational website where amateur and professional astronomers can register sightings of satellites, rockets or other pieces of man-made space debris returning to earth. The meteorite and satellite reports are shared with the public in Arabic through the IAC’s social media accounts.

“We can do the calculations to locate the general area where it will fall,” said Mr Odeh. “We can tell the people, ‘be careful, it might fall in this area or that area.’”

What was thought to be a meteorite found near Al Raha Beach though further testing indicated it was another substance. International Astronomical Center
What was thought to be a meteorite found near Al Raha Beach though further testing indicated it was another substance. International Astronomical Center

This month, the IAC is expanding its public outreach by offering astronomy workshops to children and adults at its humble headquarters in Al Bateen and also in Dubai. The centre also plans on hosting public viewings during meteor showers later this year.

“We are doing our best to have bigger projects, to have more projects which have a direct impact on the people,” said Mr Odeh, a 38-year-old Jordanian.

“We dream of having a big observatory in Abu Dhabi — with big telescopes — and a planetarium. We have many telescopes, but not to the level of an observatory. So, we are working hard with this. If we can succeed in this, I would say it would be a great achievement.”

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Workshops:

The Abu Dhabi-based International Astronomy Center is offering an introduction to astronomy course for children and young adults.

“This is an annual project aimed mainly at spreading and promoting space and astronomy knowledge, informing the UAE public about the Mars mission, the importance of the space and astronomy industry and fostering a scientifically-minded, intelligent generation,” said Samer Hakawati, executive director of the IAC.

Taught in English by international field specialists and certified professionals, the workshops will cover topics including the galaxies, the Milky Way, star birth and death, properties of stars, the giant planets and their moons, the terrestrial planets, the Earth-moon system, how science works, early astronomy, life in the universe, as well as more complex topics such as detecting radiation from space and the Copernican Revolution.

The workshops will be held between 6.30 and 8.30pm Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday for one month. Designed to decipher the science behind the planets, stars, nebulae, galaxies and grasping the inner workings of the universe, the workshops offer a mix of 16 hours of theory and eight hours of stargazing.

Children will be grouped by ages, from 7 to 14 years and 15 years and over. The course, which costs Dh1,900, inclusive of workbook and access to all practical equipment, will take a place at Abu Dhabi and Dubai and in cooperation with the UAE Space Agency.

Mr Hakawati said he hopes the classes will encourage the students to develop a greater appreciation for astronomy and science.

To book a seat and for more information, including specific start dates, call Mr Hakawati at 026663318 or 0505955115 or email samer@astronomycenter.net.

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