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Wadi Al-Hitan Astronomy Expedition

Way to Heavenly Cosmos

Way to Heavenly Cosmos
Writing the name of ASMM's founder, the famous Egyptian ploymath Dr. Mostafa Mahmoud, by light. (Image credit: Amr Tahtawi).

Here in Egypt lies a spot that paves the road to the cosmos. It is a place that reflects the beauty of the sky on its terrain and rocks. There lies the wildlife in land, aquatic life in the sea, and celestial heavens in the sky.

Next to the more famous Wadi Al-Rayan, there is located Wadi Al-Hitan at the southwest of Al-Fayoum Governorate, Egypt. This land is a blessing that God gifted to man.

UNESCO PROTECTED AREA

In July 2005, Wadi Al-Hitan became a UNESCO world heritage site for its highly-preserved fossils, Eocene geology, and wildlife. Since discovered in 1902, scientists have been exploring this area revealing secrets and new theories in biology, zoology, paleoarchaeology and taxonomy.

This land has fossils that date back to 40 million years. Its rocks drench a valley that holds the extinct archaeoceti whale fossils, sharks, turtles and crocodiles! No wonder about that, this valley was previously beneath the sea when the majority of Egypt’s land was under the seawater.

Wadi Al-Hitan is not only a place for dead fossils, but a land that never ages or dies. Scientists trace in it nowadays 15 species of desert plants, dynamic sand dunes, 15 types of wild animals, 19 species of reptiles coming from the neighboring two lakes of Wadi Al-Rayan, as well as 36 species of birds. The North African jackal, red fox, Egyptian mongoose, African wild cat, and Dorcas gazelle are the inhabitants of Wadi Al-Hitan, while the most regularly seen mammal is the Fennec Fox.

Road to Celestia

Astronomy amateurs from the Astronomical Society of Mahmoud Mosque (ASMM) decided to visit the heavens from this site. After successful organization by Mr. Amr Abdel-Wahab the current President of ASMM, a group of 43 astronomy amateurs and professional professors had their chance visiting Wadi Al-Hitan on Friday the 8th of March to observe the sky and to dive into the realms of its light.

For astronomy amateurs such a site is of a great value not just for its geological wealth and nature, but for its clear skies. Choosing an astronomical observation site has some criteria that can be fulfilled at Wadi Al-Hitan protectorate.

Astronomy Camps & Trips

Astronomy amateurs regularly camp away from cities in a kind of expeditions called astronomical trips. The purpose of such journeys is to have a better opportunity of sky observation. In cities and urban sites, the sky is blocked with air pollution, and what we call in Astronomy “Light Pollution” that makes it hard to observe celestial objects of small magnitudes (luminosity) even with telescopes.

Some relatively near celestial objects can be observed clearly from cities such as; the Sun, the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, Andromeda Galaxy, some comets, and some artificial celestial objects like satellites and the International Space Station (ISS).

Moreover, some celestial phenomena can also be observed within cities such as; solar eclipse, lunar eclipse, and conjunctions, and transits. Other celestial bodies are hard to be observed in polluted cities without telescopes such as nebulae, galaxies, meteor showers, our Milky Way galaxy’s bulge and arms, some constellations, …etc.

Criteria of Choosing Astronomical Sites

An Astronomy-friendly site must have a clear horizon without blocking elevations or heights, and it must be away from light pollution or electromagnetic interruptions. This usually means going into natural sites or non-urban areas that are almost 50 kilometers away from cities.

Having a list of celestial objects to observe is very important which is known as observation programs. In such programs the coordinates of the selected celestial bodies are settled in order to know where these bodies will appear in the sky, at what time and is it initially available to be seen from your own location on Earth or not.

Being aware of the weather forecast is a must, since the sky can be blocked with clouds, storms or any other bad weather conditions.

Activities that Took Place

Way to Heavenly Cosmos

Difference between Wadi El-Hitan now (L) and in the ancient geological past (R). (Left Image credit: Wael Hazem Fouda)

During our latest astronomical expedition, the astronomy amateurs and professionals first visited the ancient fossils. The protected area offers camping sites where you can rest in tents and have sleeping bags.

The site also encompasses sustainable bathrooms, and a small restaurant, in addition to a gallery where you can find a lot of encyclopedias, booklets, brochures and books about the place and its natural heritage.

After having a rest, the guests of ASMM were lectured about some of the basics of Positional Astronomy such as: celestial coordinate systems, how to find and use Polaris as a north pointer, as well as Geo-Coordinates locator like GPS.

Following the lecture, ASMM administrative members taught the guests how to observe the sky via ASMM telescopes. According to their words, the guests found it a magnificent experience for them to observe Jupiter and its natural satellites. “Star gazing at such an extraordinary site was the most amazing feeling, as if the sky descended to Earth!” One of them said. Some of the tools used in such trips are; sky charts which locate stars in the sky, red torches, telescopes, and GPS (incase lost in the wild).

Red torches are of great importance as on the contrary to white light, they allow the eye pupil to widen and adapt with the surrounding darkness, hence a better observation conditions and more celestial bodies you’ll be able to see with your naked-eye.

Astrophotography

At a place like Wadi Al-Hitan, professional photographers can push their skills steps forward. It’s their opportunity of capturing wildlife, geological treasures, fossils, and to take photos of the heavens and celestial bodies. Astrophotography is impossible in urban environments, because the light received from the stars is not enough to be captured by the most sensitive cameras in comparison to the extremely close light sources in the cities.

That’s why photos have to be captured through long exposures. Light pollution in cities makes it impossible for astrophotography since long sky exposures only produce glairs. Understanding the timing of apparent star movement and basic astronomy background helps professional photographers capture some of the best photos a person can ever imagine.

The talented Egyptian photographer Amr Tahtawi showed his amazing photography skills shooting unbelievable Astro photos. He shot one of our Milky Way galaxy’s spiral arms and in another photo he captured the interface between the sky and the mountains showing an extraordinary entity from his light art creations.

Wadi Al-Hitan is a land that Egypt is blessed with, a land that offers lots of experiences either in the sky or on the land. This is one of the places that you should find your way to and is a must for astronomy trips.

Way to Heavenly Cosmos

This article was first published in 2014 and is currently republished for its uniqueness.

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About Wael Hazem Fouda

Wael Hazem Fouda is a lecturer and an Administrative Member in the Astronomical Society of Mahmoud Mosque (ASMM), Egypt.

He's a science researcher who published an original article in Applied Science and Technology on Subtle Energy. He’s also the founder of Neometry and the author of the books " Neometry: Let the Forms Speak" and " Subtle Energy: a Physics Interacting Force".

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