Stellar insider tips

Start stargazing in Saudi

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Seeking wonder, magic and a chance to gaze upon a shooting star? Look no further than Arabia. Home to a plethora of dark skies, Saudi makes stargazing easy. And it may soon be home to the largest certified Dark Sky Reserve in the world.

"Over the centuries, explorers, trade caravans and pilgrims have used the night sky to navigate across our region,” says John Pagano, CEO of The Red Sea Development Company, which is seeking Dark Sky certification for the luxury tourism destination it is building among 90 untouched islands along Saudi’s west coast. “Dark Sky accreditation will allow our visitors to enjoy the same stunning nighttime panoramas that guided and inspired those historical travelers.”

Lucky for vacationgoers, there are already plenty of places to get inspired by the night sky in Saudi. To learn more about stargazing in Arabia, we went straight to the source and spoke with Nawal Alanazi, a demonstrator in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at King Saud University in Riyadh. Here’s what she had to say:

What do you teach and research at King Saud University?

I teach an introduction to astronomy course. We cover a lot of subjects, such as the solar system, asteroids, comets and the sun. Also, I run tutorials around how to use telescopes and different apps to detect the stars. The best app you can download on a computer is Stellarium, and SkyView is the best for phones.

My research interest is in solar physics, which includes active regions of the sun, the eruption in the atmosphere of the sun, and the solar wind, which affects the climate on the Earth.

What are your favorite places to stargaze in Saudi?

In areas far from Riyadh, about 300 kilometers, where there is no light pollution, the stars can be seen even with the naked eye. Saudi is a vast country with many places isolated from the cities.

The best location that attracts me to observe the stars is the city of AlUla, which is located in the northwestern part of Saudi. It is an ancient city with historical and cultural significance, about 200,000 years of human heritage. The sky is clear, and light pollution is low. In AlUla, you can observe the stars and constellations with the naked eye or a simple telescope in the silent and magical desert.

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In AlUla, a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with history and impressive rock formations, stars illuminate the night’s sky.

What are your favorite observatories in Saudi and why? 

There are many observatories. Most of them are equipped to track the time of the new moon, because it is related to the times of prayers and fasting for Muslims. 

I just visited the solar astronomical observatory and the refractor telescope at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at King Saud University, and I like it a lot. These observatories are equipped with the latest equipment, so you can observe the movement of the stars and planets, the sun and moon, and monitor the phenomenon of eclipses and lunar eclipses. The observatory opens its doors for those wishing to see celestial bodies.

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Go camping under the stars in the Eastern Province at Judah’s Thumb, a towering rock formation in the desert that resembles the shape of a thumb. 

Are certain times of the year better for stargazing in Saudi? 

The best time to go stargazing is during the days before, during and soon after each new moon.

Also, the seasons are an important factor; the best time is from October until March. In Saudi, the sky is clear and the weather is stable most days, so it’s easy to go stargazing [during this time]. Just pick the right place.

Are there certain constellations that can only be seen in and around Saudi?

The constellations that appear in the Northern Hemisphere differ slightly from those that appear in the Southern Hemisphere of Earth, and the number of constellations depends on the location and how close you are to the equator. In addition, they differ according to the seasons and are called seasonal constellations. In the area around us [in Riyadh], you can see the Little Bear all year long, Gemini, Pisces and Sagittarius.

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A red flashlight allows your eyes to stay adapted to the dark, which is crucial for stargazing, while also providing enough light for you to find your belongings.

Do you have any tips for astrophotographers in Saudi? 

My advice is to stay away from the city for 100 kilometers and observe in a high land devoid of trees. The best place is in the desert, such as the Dahna desert in the east, Al Nafud in the north and the area around the city of AlUla. A small tip: Always use digital planetarium software to map out the night sky to save time, bring a red-light flashlight to see your stuff in the dark and a power tank to charge your devices.

What’s your favorite part of working in the field of astronomy?

Actually, astronomy is my passion, and I enjoy every part of it. But what I like the most is watching the moment of a rocket launch and the result — the information that’s sent to Earth from the spacecraft far away from us. I definitely also love studying the sun and understanding the behavior and personalities of our star.

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Lisa Zimmermann is a travel writer and editor who has previously written for Club Traveler, Boston magazine, New England Travel, American Airlines and Atlas Magazine.