x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Traffic jams mar promised star-gazing experience

Hundreds of star-gazers turned out in force late on Friday to witness the once-in-a-lifetime Camelolpardalids meteor shower - but many left disappointed.

UAE residents wait on the outskirts near Bab Al Shams resort to catch a glimpse of the predicted meteor shower in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
UAE residents wait on the outskirts near Bab Al Shams resort to catch a glimpse of the predicted meteor shower in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National

DUBAI // Star gazers who gathered at Bab Al Shams Desert Resort on Friday night were disappointed after they saw only five or six meteors during a “once-in-a-lifetime event” at which 1,000 or more a minute had been expected.

But they turned out to be the lucky ones. Thousands who had flocked to the resort, in the heart of the desert, to see the “debris trail” could not even get inside as they ended up stuck in a traffic jam.

The queue of vehicles stretched back for at least four kilometres well into the early hours as enthusiasts tried to reach the venue to witness the Camelopardalids, a meteor shower named after the giraffe constellation.

The Dubai Astronomy Group, which hosted the event, had suggested the resort as a good location to view the fallout from the debris trail of Comet 209P/Linear, which was discovered in 2004.

Scientists and astronomers are waiting with bated breath for the showers to take place. After Friday’s letdown, experts on Saturday said the meteors had still not fallen and that the celestial spectacle might take place on Saturday night.

“We haven’t seen it yet,” said Hasan Ahmad Al Hariri, the chief executive of the group, which had set up eight telescopes.

“We may have another chance to see it tonight. The Earth hasn’t crossed the comet yet.

“Scientists are very sure that the debris is there. It will surely fall. We are only not sure of the intensity and when it will happen. The showers are expected to last for at least four hours.”

An estimated 5,000 people turned up on Friday night. Parking at the resort was chaotic, despite volunteers from the astronomy group and hotel staff trying to help motorists. Many were forced to leave their cars on the approach road and hike the last few kilometres.

One of them was Juhi Chand, a student from Heriot-Watt University’s Dubai campus.

“It was impossible to get inside,” she said. “And when we did, there was a long line of people waiting to use the telescopes.”

Despite the inconvenience, she said she and her friends had enjoyed themselves.

“It wasn’t as expected but what we saw was beautiful,” she said. “We managed to catch about five or six shooting stars.”

Mr Al Hariri blamed the resort for the problems.

“We asked Bab Al Shams management to give us a bigger location,” he said. “They underestimated the number. They could have opened up the Endurance village, which can accommodate about 10,000 people. Unfortunately, they failed to do that.” He said the resort could hold only 800 cars.

“Things did go wrong and they lost control,” he said. “People had parked cars everywhere and many couldn’t get in or out easily.”

Amir Asali, an Iranian expatriate who came with his son, Hirad, 10, said astronomers should arrange more vantage points next time.

“For an event like this, there should be many places and many more telescopes, so people can be scattered around,” he said. “This way, traffic wouldn’t be so bad.”

The astronomy group said it was in talks with Dubai Municipality to set up a permanent camping spot for amateur astronomers. Dark Sky Park would be located a few kilometres from Bab Al Shams.

“It would be a very big camping ground just to watch the stars,” Mr Al Hariri said. “It would be the first such place in the Middle East. There would be basic facilities but the idea is not to build much. It should be a paradise for astronomers.

“If all goes well, it would be ready in a couple of months.”