Friday, July 31, 2009

Dubai : Looking for Space



George O’Donohue

Days after the launch of DubaiSat-1, the Dubai Astronomy Group explains the huge spectrum of benefits an interest in the stars can reap. George O’Donohue reports

Four hundred years ago, Galileo Galilei used the first astronomical telescope to get a closer look at the night sky. He wasn’t the first by any means to take a vested interest in the bigger picture beyond the clouds; civilisations beginning (as far as we know) with the Egyptians 6,000 years ago worked out and recorded how to measure time, space, geographical positions and directions using the stars and planets above us.

Astronomy has played a large part in Arab history for many centuries. Building on discoveries by the Greeks and Romans, ancient Arabs used navigational techniques to aid Middle Eastern trading and have promoted this strain of science at local universities since the 13th century.

Fast forward to 2009 and astronomy is once again at the forefront of people’s minds. This month saw launch of the first UAE satellite, DubaiSat1, into space; a breakthrough that will enable a new level of local data collection on a whole range of subjects.

“It will definitely be the beginning of a new era,” says Ankur Bhatia, an Indian engineer who is a member of the Dubai Astronomy Group.

The Dubai Astronomy Group has been active in the UAE since 2000 and now boasts more than 1,200 members. It is headed up by Hasan Ahmad Al Hariri, an Emirati who has been passionate about the subject since his brother brought home a book on the stars in the 1970s, when he was only 14.

“I even slept with that book,” he laughs. “I am not a researcher, I am an amateur, but I am trying to fill up other people’s lives with something more meaningful than just commuting between home and work. To give people a passion towards their environment, and get them to look at the bigger picture.”

He continues, “Astronomy is the model for all science, it is at the root of everything. There is so much meaning in it, ranging from giving someone enjoyment from the beauty of the stars, to serious scientific research.”

The Dubai group is open to anyone and membership is free. Hasan and his board run a range of activities from lectures and seminars, to training courses and star gazing trips at astronomer ‘hide-outs’ in the desert mountains. They have the largest telescope in the UAE and plenty of resources for anyone interested in learning more about the great unknown. Better still, Hasan’s passion is infectious.

“Astronomy is fun for your soul and fun for your mind,” he says. “What we are missing in Dubai is an appreciation of the beauty of science, it’s important to have something other than work and home to have a rich life.”

His members couldn’t agree more. Kaizad Raimalwala has been a member since he encountered the group at university in Sharjah in 2005. “Imagining the unthinkable enormity of the universe gives me a sense of perspective and humility. It makes me realise there’s more to life than the hatred, crime and war that plagues our world.”

His enthusiasm is echoed internationally. This year is also the International Year of Astronomy, which celebrates the science’s contribution to society and culture. Basic concepts that we live our lives by and take for granted as having always existed such as time, dates, years, the decimal point and the realisation that we live in a heliocentric (or sun-based) universe on a round planet (not a flat disc) all have their roots in star-gazing.

“Many civilisations have a rich past in astronomy,” says Lee Fullen from the International Year of Science organisation (IYA). “It is our hope that people will gain an increased appreciation of how astronomy is a modern, dynamic and fascinating science with many real world applications.”

This sentiment is echoed by Hasan with a very specific local perspective. His group runs summer camps for children and has been working with UAE schools since 2005 to set up and fund clubs for kids to fuel their imagination in the possibilities of science.

“We want to empower children and teachers to love science. Today in the UAE, there are only a small amount of nationals and we have to excel at something that will be beneficial and useful not just for us, but for the international community as well. What I’m trying to do is empower them with knowledge and help them to be citizens of the world,” he explains.

Talking to the group’s members, this approach seems to be working. Astronomy brings perspective to anyone that becomes involved in its wider world, but potential astronomers can take as little or as much from it as they wish.

Indian Ridhi Kantelal will be combining her interest in the stars with her university course of Material Sciences. She explains, “Astronomy combines the creativity of an artist and the rigidity of a scientific mind. During space voyages, more environmentally friendly materials are needed. I hope to conduct research and find materials that will at least aid a leap in the progress of astronomy.”

Hasan himself is an example of what a passion for astronomy can lead to. Thanks to his passion he speaks fluent English and learnt computer programming, which lead to his career in telecommunications engineering.

“I had to learn English because I kept sending NASA questions and the replies were in English, then I learnt more with computers, geology and electronics because my special area of interest is spacecraft missions and robotics,” he says.

The potential held in the universe beyond our own world is exciting and inspiring, yet it can be taken for granted by a modern society more concerned with their short-term, Earth-based pursuits, than a life-time of learning and study. But the members of the Dubai Astronomy Group are positive about a future of international co-operation.

Ankit Choudhary has been fascinated by space since he saw Star Wars as a child, and has been a member for six years, “I see astronomy as helping to bridge gaps between different cultures.”

Others echo his sentiments whole-heartedly. “This feeling of universal brotherhood is something people come to realise after they get involved in astronomy,” says Amol Mane, whose interest sits separate to his job as an IT manager at a real estate company.

But this isn’t just idealistic thinking. The very scope of astronomy requires international collaborations. “You learn to co-ordinate with various people who are sometimes not even living in the same country. Most astronomy projects are on a grand scale, so people from all parts of the world join together to make it happen,” Amol explains.

Similarly, the IYA is spending this year organising and promoting events in 140 countries to encourage young people especially to take a wider interest in the world around them, to a share an experience which transcends nationality or geography.

“If you look at our planet from space, you won’t see political borders piercing through our lands, marking them into territories. You will see big green and brown continents interspersed by blue oceans of water — signs of life. By gazing at the heavens one can appreciate life and it’s immense potential,” says Kaizad. Astronomy might be inspiring for its followers, but listening to them speak is in itself inspiring and encouraging, for the future of not just space exploration, but also here down on the ground.

Talking about the future, the UAE’s first satellite marks a new chapter in Arab astronomy, launching 40 years after man first walked on the moon.

“It is a huge achievement and a beautiful thing,” says Hasan. His own group also have grand plans for a renewed effort in space exploration. They have proposed a space facility on Indonesian Sumatra near the equator, to HH Shaikh Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Prime Minister and Vice-President, and Ruler of Dubai, and hope to collaborate with the Indonesian government.

“We could do a great job, and a space facility could develop new technology that would raise the region’s profile in the international community. We would collaborate with NASA, ASA, the Japanese, the Russians, the Chinese, everyone to create something international that could help the entire world,” enthuses Hasan. This international collaboration is already happening; this month’s satellite launch took place with the aid of a Russian-made rocket.

A fellow founding member, Yousif Marhoon looks forward to the day when the group is recognised by Dubai’s government, realising a dream he has had since childhood.

“I always dreamt of running an observatory and being able to contribute to society in a positive way through spreading science to the next generation.” A manager of assets strategy and policy at the RTA, he recognises the potential to change lives that astronomy has, both at an individual level and a wider one for the world, “We really feel that we achieve something valuable with the group, which makes you feel like a productive individual in society.”

It may seem like a diverting folly to launch a renewed interest in the possibilities of space when we have so many pressing problems on the ground, but our biggest leaps in understanding the world around us have come from our interest in a galaxy, far, far away.

“I believe all the answers we’re looking for are right there above us, be it the beginning of the universe or the mystery of dark matter, or even our very own existence. If only humans would spend a little more time looking at the sky, we’d find them,” says Vidya Gopalakrishnan.

Her interest also stems from a childhood film, the 1984 classic, ET. “Satellite monitoring of the Earth maintains a vigil on ice caps and forests, as well as tracking climatic conditions,” adds Lee. “Solving environmental problems on a global scale would be incredibly difficult without astronomy.”

The breadth of areas that astronomy can feed into is exemplified nowhere better than asking different astronomers to name the most exciting discovery since that infamous one step for man. No answer is the same. From planets outside the solar system, to the river beds on Mars to worm-holes, microwave radiation, dark matter and the fact that the universe is accelerating and expanding. As a never-ending voyage of discovery, often these new findings open more doors than they close, but as with all good voyages, it’s in the journey that meaning can be found.

“Dark matter makes our world even stranger and mysterious than previously imagined. This opens up entirely new frontiers in astronomy,” says Amol. For Ankur Bhatia, it is what’s yet to come that spurs on his interest. “I’m looking forward to some positive results from the Keplar mission.” This mission’s objective is to find similar size planets to Earth within a habitable range of stars.

It is this anticipation of the future that this month’s launch of DubaiSat1 hopes to reignite. The Middle East has spent thousands of years tracking the stars. It now has the skills and technology to take its first steps in getting closer to them. Further projects include a new observatory in the mountains, science foundations and museums.

(For more information on astronomy in Dubai, go to www.dubaiastronomy.com or www.astronomy2009.org.)

MOONWALKER

It’s been four decades since Neil Armstrong set foot on our nearest neighbour, and yet the interest in the moon shows no sign in waning. Some of the astronomers above are currently undertaking a moon mapping project. Since it has been inactive for a long time, the surface of the moon is a preserved landscape that can offer us clues to our own planet’s geological history. This sub-group have been mapping this landscape through high resolution photographs, focusing on the most visually striking part, the ‘Terminator.’ Forget the science fiction films, the science fact means this is the line that separates the illuminated part of the moon from the side that is in darkness. The shadows thrown by the Sun’s low rays pick out with dazzling clarity the details of lunar craters. Kaizad explains the project’s appeal, “I hope everyone gets a chance to see the moon up close through a telescope; it’s a sight you will never forget. It still leaves me in awe after many years of moon-watching.”

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