Dubai: Looking for a calm yet exciting experience, away from the buzz of city life? The UAE’s vast open areas offer some excellent views of beautiful star-studded night skies, complete with constellations and galaxies.
From the Hope Mars Mission’s success to the launching the Arab world’s first environmental nanometric satellite, UAE harbours a deep connection to astronomy – and if you’re looking to join in and enjoy the wonders of space and stargazing with friends and family, here’s a guide to where you can visit, how to do so safely and what to keep in mind.
Gulf News spoke to Hasan Ahmad Al Hariri, CEO of Dubai Astronomy Group and Sheeraz Ahmad Awan, general manager and amateur astronomer at Dubai Astronomy Group about all you need to know.
Which constellations can I see in the UAE sky?
While some constellations are seen year-round, others will change from summer to winter as the Earth revolves around the sun. As the UAE is situated in the northern hemisphere, summer constellations are best seen from June to September, and winter constellations are most distinct from around December to March.
Constellations visible all year round
The following constellations are circumpolar constellations, which means that they can generally be seen all year round:
• Ursa Major
• Ursa Minor
Here are the list of the prominent summer constellations, star clusters and galaxy views in the UAE, as per the website of Abu Dhabi-based Al Sadeem Observatory:
• Milky Way Galaxy is located in between constellations, and is best seen in the summer.
• Summer triangle (Vega in Lyra constellation, Altair in Aquila constellation and Deneb in Cygnus constellation)
• Omega Centauri, star cluster in the Centaurus constellation
Prominent winter constellations, star clusters and galaxy views in the UAE:
• Orion (the hunter)
• Canis Major (the big dog)
• Canis Minor (the small dog)
• Gemini (the twins)
• Taurus (the bull)
• Sirius, a very bright star.
• Some deep-sky objects such as Great Nebula in Orion, Beehive cluster in Cancer, Big Dipper
• Winter triangle, consisting of the stars, Betelgeuse (in Orion), Sirius and Procyon (in Canis Minor)
• Winter Hexagon consisting of the stars Rigel (in Orion), Aldebaran (in Taurus), Capella (in Auriga), Pollux (in Gemini), Procyon, Sirius
But, do you need to memorise these for a fruitful stargazing trip? Not at all, in fact, many planetarium and stargazing apps can help you identify these stars, constellation and galaxies from the palm of your hand at these locations.
• SkyView Lite: Helps you identify the constellations in the night sky and does not require WiFi. It also provides details on the phases and location of the moon in the night sky every day and is useful to determine the timings for stargazing visits.
• SkyPortal: You can point the telescope to any object in the sky, you can listen to audio to accompany your stargazing experience as well. You can use Night Vision to explore the sky.
• Stellarium: A planetarium app that explains what you see as you hold up the phone to the sky.
When should I go stargazing?
Avoid cloudy days and full moon nights when you plan your stargazing nights as the moonlight can affect your view of the skies. Nevertheless, you can schedule a trip timed before the moon rises for the day - but a clear, new moon night is ideal.
“For example, if you leave by 8pm and return by 10pm, and the moon rises after that time, it is fine,” Awan said.
In terms of seasons, winter is regarded as the most ideal time to stargaze as the air is less humid and more clear. However, the best view for the Milky Way is during the summer.
What should I keep in mind?
Stargazing spots in the UAE can often be located away from the city’s light pollution, and amidst deserts with fewer facilities nearby. This means that although you will see beautiful vistas of stars due to darker night skies, you need to keep some things in mind to ensure your safety.
“The whole idea is that you want to be away from light as much as possible, but in an area that is easily accessible and you cannot get lost. We highly recommend going to places with facilities, as the environment can be quite challenging,” Awan said.
Awan, who is also an amateur astronomer, shared his personal tips for the novice stargazer:
1. Don’t venture in the desert unless you know what you are doing or you have someone with you who does. Just having a four-wheel drive is sometimes not enough.
2. Don’t venture into the desert alone, even if you do know what you are doing.
3. These areas can be arid and dry. Make sure you stay hydrated.
4. Some of these areas don’t have bathrooms nearby, so hydrate accordingly!
5. If you are into stargazing, avoid nights where you have a lot of moonlight for a long time.
6. Avoid areas near bodies of water as this is where animals, including snakes and scorpions, can be found.
7. The desert and the mountain are harsh and unforgiving terrain. Be wary of that and prepare accordingly.
8. For your trip, pack light, but pack right! It is better to have something and not use it, than needing it and not having it. This rule can be applied to food, water, clothing and even toilet paper.
9. If lighting a bonfire, take precautionary measures and protect the environment and yourself.
10. These are natural areas and are meant to be treated with respect. Remember to clean up before you leave.
What equipment should I pack?
When first setting out for stargazing, you must be wondering if you would need equipment such as binoculars or telescopes to see the night sky better.
“This depends on the kind of stargazing you want to do,” said Awan.
You can start off with viewing with the naked eye, and if desired, binoculars can be purchased. If you are looking to use telescopes, you can head to Dubai Astronomy Group where, you can not only learn how to use one for stargazing, but also rent one for personal use (accompanied by a designated operator) at an average cost of Dh2,000, according to Awan.
However, it is always recommended to pack the following:
• Food and snacks
• First aid kit
• Sanitary items
• Clothing as appropriate to expected weather conditions
Where can I go to stargaze in the UAE?
There are observatories, resorts, and mountainous and desert areas sometimes accompanied by resorts where you can stargaze in the UAE.
Al Thuraya Astronomy Centre (under the Dubai Astronomy Group)
Address: Mushrif Park, Mushrif, Dubai
Al Thuraya Astronomy Centre can be a good place to begin your stargazing journey in the UAE. It has various types of astronomical instruments such as telescopes and binoculars with different lenses, eye-pieces and filters and staff to guide you in using them.
“It is very good when it comes to viewing bright objects in the sky – such as planets, the moon, sun, stars, major constellations, but most importantly – it has all the astronomical facilities available, as well as other astronomers on-site,’ said Awan.
You can also book activities such as solar observation, telescope observation, astro cinema, planetarium show and tour the observatory at prices ranging between Dh10 – Dh30. There are also various Astrotourism tours held by the Dubai Astronomy Group, which you can check for on their website.
“We usually take people to very special locations,” said Al Hariri, describing a trip to Jebel Jais where they had obtained permission to go to one of the best stargazing spots in the area.
Al Qudra Desert
Although it is a desert area, with arid landscapes, it has public access areas such as Al Qudra Lakes areas, including Love Lakes, which is a pair of heart-shaped lakes, Expo lakes, and the Crescent Moon lake. The closest facility is the Last Exit Al Qudra, a five to ten minute drive from inner Al Qudra, and the Bab Al Shams resort, which is located nearby as well. You would not require a four-wheel drive, unless driving off-road.
“You can pull out a map and a pillow and look into the sky,” said Awan, adding that bringing binoculars and telescopes depends on your preference, and that many who stargaze here camp overnight as well, often near the lakes areas.
Awan recommends going up to the lake areas, or beyond the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, found past Al Qudra lakes. You may be able to view the galaxy in these areas.
“However, there are certain places where your car can get stuck [in the sand], so please be careful,” said Awan.
Area near Bab Al Shams Resort
This area is located is located nearby a resort - you will have access to facilities, including food and stay options..
Al Marmoom Conservation reserve
Located on the other side of the Al Ain road, near the Al Qudra area, the Al Marmoom Conservation reserve area is open to the public. The recommended visit season is from October to March.
Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve
This is the UAE’s first national park and also a private area that you can access by staying at the Al Maha Resort or booking tours through the approved tourism companies. The companies offer private night desert safaris in the area with a professional guide and astronomer. This experience includes using professional stargazing equipment, and for direct booking with use of a private car, prices start from Dh2,200 .
Al Hariri recommended also exploring the area near Al Maha resort, which is located within the reserve.
The Mleiha archaeological site in Sharjah offers various options for stargazing. You can book a a stargazing evening, priced at Dh100 per person and Dh80 per child for non-exclusive viewing, and enjoy a quiet evening under the stars with hot beverages such as mint tea and gahwa. You will get to spot Mars, Jupiter and the moon, apart from some other sky views, as per their website. The facility offers various paid packages for stargazing.
Sharjah Centre for Astronomy and Space research
Although the Sharjah Centre for Astronomy and research has an observatory housing four telescopes that are 45 centimetres in diameter to observe the galaxies, stars and planets. The planetarium there offers a variety of shows for visitors.
Ras Al Khaimah
Located in eastern Ras Al Khaimah and only 45 minutes away from Dubai. Wadi Shawka has arid, rocky valley and mountainous regions with various hiking trails and the Shawka Dam. According to Awan, the area has clear, dark skies, but because it is an open area, some areas are family friendly and some are less so, - going to the Shawka Dam, people camp there so that can be a good place to go .
To keep in mind:
• Wear hiking boots or stronger shoes, especially if going on hiking trails.
• Nearer to the dam, there is a fear and chance of encountering snakes and scorpions.
• Do not go further into the valley, as it has privately owned areas.
Area near Ritz Carlton Al Wadi Desert
As the area is located near Emirates road along the Ritz Carlton, you will have access to all amenities. The resort itself has stargazing platforms that will be available to use depending on the climate and weather conditions, where you can be guided by astronomy experts with the appropriate equipment such as telescopes to help you spot constellations, stars, visible planets and galaxies. This activity is only open to guests, who can make a reservation at the recreation team, and there are also guided night walks available.
If not staying at the Ritz Carlton, make sure to consult with the city’s tourism authorities on which areas are open to the public, as you may need permission – some areas are closed for conservation purposes.
Jebel Al Jais
As UAE’s highest peak, it has various hiking trails.
According to Awan, Jebel Al Jais is a convenient place for stargazing, in terms of night sky quality, atmospheric temperature and availability of facilities – as there are bathrooms and rest areas all around the mountain. There is also an observation deck for the public.
It is a popular spot to visit on weekends.
In all the following locations, you would need a four-wheel drive car for safe driving on sand, and you must obtain permission from the Abu Dhabi tourism authorities before venturing into private desert areas. For a list of all the private areas in Abu Dhabi, and more, and information on camping and dune bashing in the deserts, click here.
Al Hariri emphasised that these deserts are dangerous, and visiting is not recommended - unless you have experienced guides, and have taken all precautions.
“Remember the deserts are never empty – there are scorpions, snakes, foxes, wolves,” said Al Hariri. “The further you want to go, the more precautions you have to take.”
If visiting the Razeen Desert, Liwa Desert, the Quaa Milky Way Spot or Al Khatim Desert, please adhere to the following steps:
A quick guide to visiting the deserts:
• If you are unfamiliar with deserts, or these areas, do not go on your own – find a group or guides who know the terrain, how to navigate and how to get to safety in case of an emergency.
• Plan your trip out fully beforehand, along with timings of your journey and inform your friends and family about your location.
“Planning is the most important part of the journey – plan your activities out, and tell your loved ones that if I am not back in a set time, say six hours, then they should raise the alarm,” Al Hariri told Gulf News.
• Take note of the nearest facilities you can go to for using the bathroom, buying food and groceries and stay.
• Remember to always pack adequate food, water, navigational equipment, first aid kit and make sure to have enough gas or petrol for the journey.
• Always drive in the daytime. In a group, you can camp there overnight if desired, with the cars parked around your camp area as a fence.
On arriving there:
• Don’t shout, play music or make any noises.
• “Don’t try to find animals and scorpions, don’t make noises, fire or anything that might attract other people to you,” said Al Hariri, who Especially warns not to start up barbeques, as again, there may be a chance of animals, insects or other creatures being attracted to your camp.
• “Make sure that there are no bushes, no bumps, no rocks in the area before you sit down or place a mat,” said Al Hariri. This is because insects and snakes usually rest near such places, right below the sand’s surface.
• Avoid all the trees, and don’t go to bushes, as it is likely that animals or insects are also taking refuge there.
• Other than scorpions, there may be wolves, foxes and even leopards in the deserts, so it is imperative to follow these guidelines, Al Hariri explained.
Al Razeen Desert
Location: Al Ain Road, Abu Dhabi
You can view the Milky Way galaxy in its entirety here, and you would need to carry all basic amenities such as food and water, navigation equipment, tents and light if looking for a desert night camp experience.
To reach Al Razeen desert, drive past the Al Wathba Palace area on the E22 exit from Bani Yas or E30 from the direction of the Al Dhafra Air Base. For residents of Abu Dhabi, it would take around one and a half hours to reach.
Al Quaa Milky Way Spot
Around a one and a half hour drive from Abu Dhabi city towards Al Ain, Al Quaa is known for its Milky Way view. It is located in the Rub Al Khali or The Empty Quarter desert, which is the world’s largest sand desert.
Liwa Desert (part of Rub Al Khali desert or the empty quarter)
Liwa is a vast desert, populated by a few resorts, hotels, small stores and restaurants. It is located at around a four-hour drive from Dubai and a little more than two hours from Abu Dhabi and can make for a good weekend visit, as it is pristine and beautiful. However, given the fact that the area is a distance from the city centre, it is also important to take all the precautions when visiting the area.
According to Awan, the route is convenient as it is a straight road, but he emphasises that daylight drives are better.
Awan recounts a personal experience at Liwa: “Back in 2014, around February, we were on our way back from Liwa at around 2pm, when we suddenly ran into a patch of fog – we couldn’t see beyond the front of our car. We stopped the car on the side and waited for this to pass. Especially in the winter, you would need to keep an eye out for this – if you encounter fog or sandstorms, just stop on one side.”
There are two hotels where you can stay for a smoother stargazing journey:
• Tilal Liwa hotel, where there are nighttime dune bashing trips and outdoor barbeques.
• Qasr Al Sarab Resort by Anantara, where you can go on guided night walks, where you are explained special features of the night sky. There is also a stargazing experience at the hotel’s Bedouin-style camp, which you can request for. You can also use telescopes, and learn about how to use them, basic astronomy principles and information about the stars, planets and constellations in the sky.
Al Khatim Desert
This is another desert in the western part of the country, located between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. To get there, drive past Al Wafiya Farms on the E22 exit of Al Ain road.
There are ranches where camels and cattle are raised, according to Al Hariri, and you would require a four wheel drive to traverse this area.
Driving into the desert for around half an hour can yield the best night views, Al Hariri told Gulf News.
Al Sadeem Observatory
Located in Al Wathba South, at the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, the observatory has a large telescope within a 5.5 metre dome, as well as various other types and sizes of telescopes that can be used for stargazing. The centre is currently closed for visitors due to maintenance. You can book sessions when the centre is back open by filling out a form on the website in advance.
As per the website, the facility is equipped with camping materials, lavatories, kitchens and training areas as well.
On the Al Ain road going down to Jebel Hafeet, Al Hariri recommends the area behind Jebel Hafeet as a good stargazing spot.
There would be no requirement for a 4 x4 vehicle as there is a long road that passes through Liwa and Qasr Al Sarab Areas. While there are villages nearby, grocery stores in the vicinity close at night,” Al Hariri said.
“Book a hotel room, do the stargazing and stay in the hotel overnight for a more convenient experience,” he added.
- The writer is an intern with Gulf News