Thabet Al-Qaissieh grew up in Al-Ain, UAE, at a time when the population was small, the city wasn’t so full of lights, and the sky was still glimmering with stars. His father used to take him on desert trips that would last until the middle of the night, presenting Thabet with a spectacular sight of infinite stars sprinkled across the night skies.
He would lie down on his back, on the soft grains of sand, and imagine himself traveling through space; meeting alien life forms. “Cartoons really helped with imagining other creatures living in distant galaxies,” he explained.
He still remembers his first experience with astronomy, when he visited a space museum in San Diego, California, at the age of 10, feeling a rush of exhilaration while looking through a fake telescope and seeing a replica image of Mars.
Twenty-four years later, and Thabet, 34, together with Founder of Abu Dhabi Astronomy Group, Alejandro Palado, have built the Al-Sadeem Observatory; the UAE’s first space observatory.
It was a nice, cool evening at the family farm, with clear skies and not a cloud in sight. Thabet was gazing at the countless stars when he thought to himself, “Buying a telescope would be fun!” However, there would have been one problem, and quite a crucial one; he wouldn’t have known what kind of telescope to buy, or how to properly use it.
While doing a quick search on astronomy enthusiasts, Thabet, the Emirati businessman, came across Alejandro, who ended up giving him advice on buying a telescope and the required accessories, and asking if he could visit Thabet’s farm for some stargazing and astrophotography, to which Thabet readily agreed.
After a visit to the farm, Alejandro told Thabet it would make a great location for an observatory for the public, especially children; to encourage them to study astronomy by showing them how fun and engaging it can be.
Thabet discussed the idea with his late brother who told him, “Thabet, there is no losing with such an idea. If it works as a business, you would be providing a great service to society, especially with the UAE Space Program. And the worst-case scenario is, if it doesn’t work out as a business, you have an amazing place for yourself!” And thus, the Al-Sadeem Observatory was founded with Alejandro’s help as director.
It took months of research to figure out the right size of dome, telescope, and what sort of foundation to put it on. They knew an architect with a passion for astronomy and she designed the observatory. “The harder part was finding the dome we wanted,” Thabet said. “We ended up buying a 5.5m diameter rotating dome, where we house a 16” telescope. The entire process took about a year, from start to finish.”
The farm is about 30 minute outside of Abu Dhabi and has moderate to low light pollution, which makes it an ideal location. They hold events at the observatory, where visitors can get a brief lecture on specific celestial events, and of course, an opportunity to stargaze through the telescope. They also offer private lessons for all ages on how to use a telescope and venture into astrophotography.
“The importance of astronomy, in all forms, is a study of the stars, but also a great way to understand ourselves,” Thabet said. “Astronomy teaches us how small we are in this infinite universe.”
Just like any other relatively new field in the Gulf, astronomy needs more awareness and education, said Thabet, although he believes it has been gaining more traction in the UAE.
“I remember how I felt looking through the fake telescope as a kid and how amazed I was,” Thabet said. “I’d like kids to have the same experience, but with a real telescope, in the hopes of getting more people to study astronomy, which would help the UAE Space Program.”
Since its inception in 2014 the UAE Space Agency has been working with the Ministry of Education to evaluate the present curriculums in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) as well as invest in astronomy and STEM education in general, so more children have opportunities to study astronomy, or other STEM fields, through scholarships and governmental support. Although these are his main goals, on a more “selfish” side, Thabet confessed he also wants to help with space travel so he himself can go to space.
“On a much smaller scale, when we host events, we have people from all walks of life, and everyone is there for one purpose: astronomy,” he said. “Basically, what I’m trying to say is, astronomy can be the greatest weapon for humans to build bridges and combat hateful ideologies with a common foundation, in this case, the sky.”
Images provided by Thabet Al-Qaissieh.