Stargazing In Qatar: Adventures In Amateur Astrophotography

(MENAFN- The Peninsula) Khalid Elsawi |The Peninsula

Doha, Qatar: Rizwan Ahmad's first foray into astronomy was when his young daughter requested him a telescope seven years ago. Years later, having grown even fonder of the telescope than his little girl, and during the global COVID pandemic, Rizwan became interested in astrophotography; this interest would then lead him to document the sublime splendor of the cosmos.

Rizwan is only but one member of a small community of people in Qatar who – for hours and sometimes even days – stalk the veil of the night sky in hopes of zeroing in on the colorful gas and dust giants of our universe.

This niche community occupies itself with astrophotography; the art of photographing of astronomical objects or celestial events.

Ever since the 1840s, when Louis Dageurre – the inventor of the daguerreotype photographic process – took what is widely considered the first picture of our moon, many have pointed their cameras at the heavens, with heightened ambitions of capturing even more.

Despite astrophotography being a very scientific endeavor, one cannot deny the artistry behind not only capturing the very essence of the cosmos, but also in peeling back the dreamlike celestial formations that lie beyond the endless blackness above.

Several things are needed to do astrophotography, one of which is capital, as Rizwan admits that it is a quite financially demanding hobby. The other is abundant patience.

Rizwan's proudest accomplishment was his capture of the Simeis 147, popularly known as the Spaghetti Nebula, a supernova located in the Milky Way galaxy. He told The Peninsula he had driven 300km just for that capture.

Clockwise from top left: Seagul Nebula, Lobster Claw Nebula, Spaghetti Nebula, Soul Nebula; Pictures clicked by Rizwan Ahmad

However it was the Squid Nebula, discovered in 2011, that remains his proudest capture.

“I have captured it once and I have no interest for the foreseeable future to do it again. I love it so much I have it framed and on display in my house,” he told The Peninsula.

He told The Peninsula that it could take from 21 hours to three full days to capture the night sky in its sincerest beauty, and that sometimes even after having spent that much time, one might suffer bitter failure and come out of the whole ordeal empty handed.

It is evident that passion is an integral component in astrophotography, as it has not impeded the work of Qatar's astrophotography community even a bit, who are currently very much still active.

For pictures to come out perfect, pitch-black darkness is required of the surrounding area, and that is why, according to Rizwan, the South of Qatar is the ideal location for these pictures to be taken.

A shot clicked by Luana Ciavatelli

Luana Ciavatelli, another Qatar resident, described the darkness surrounding one in the desert – where she captures most of her photos – as fear-inducing, and that in the vast, flat, silent desert“you lose all reference points.” She likened it to being stranded on a far away planet.

The elation comes when she looks up, gazes at the stars, and feels taken aback by the sacred ancient poetry in our stars, by“being part of God's creation.”

Born in a small mountain town in Italy, Luana described her love for the night sky as inexplicable. Much like Rizwan, it was also the 2020 global pandemic that sparked a love for astrophotography in her. She has chased the Milky Way down Al Amiriya, and found her favorite spot around the outskirts of Al Rayyan.

She told The Peninsula that during the COVID era, whenever her and her husband had the chance to go outside, they would always inevitably end up under the stars in Al Amiriya.

Luana Ciavatelli's shot of the night sky

There is something uniquely serene about the skies above, and this unidentifiable thing has been described by both Luana and Rizwan as the feeling of being closer to the Almighty's divinity.

For Rizwan, the geometry of the universe unravels the further he indulges in his hobby, and this feeling is so overpowering that he can only utter“Subhanallah” (Arabic for“Glory be to Allah”).

The science behind the art

It takes more than just a camera to click these photos. There is a highly scientific aspect to the hobby.

Rizwan explained that not every click might come out to his liking because disturbances in the atmosphere, that can range from too much headlight from cars, to the types of gasses surrounding the big celestial objects, can affect the amount of photons – the tiny particles that comprise waves of electromagnetic radiation – collected.

Photons are later developed through designated tools that transform them into the awe-inspiring images we see.

Naturally, a telescope is an integral part of the process, but the mount it rests on carries equal importance.

Two laptops are what Rizwan told The Peninsula he uses during his operations. The motorized mount, which has within it all coordinates installed, receives commands from one laptop and turns to position itself accordingly. The image captured via the telescope resting on top of the mount is then filtered into other laptop, which snaps the shot.

He described to The Peninsula also using an equatorial mount, wherein the telescope mount is placed in alignment with the Earth's axis, and moves opposite to our planet's rotation.

Luana is a self-described amateur astrophotography enthusiast, and she tries to make best with what she has.

Sunspots taken with toy telescope Luana Ciavatelli

An image of the sun with black sunspots visible during the cosmic event was captured by Luana through the age old technique of solar projection, where she utilized a toy telescope to project an image of the sun onto a piece of paper and then captured an image of that projection.

In order to take a good astronomical photo or a panoramic astrophoto, Luana told The Peninsula that several conditions need to happen at the same time:“No moon, perfect weather, clear air, low humidity, cool temperature but not too extreme. Depending on the moment of the year, you can capture different targets but not others.”

Sometimes, however, in a rush of excitement, Luana said that she would go unprepared, with only with a sincere prayer for things go alright.

The night sky is divided along a scale known as the“Bortle scale,” a numeric scale that measures the brightness of the night sky at a specific location. The scale goes from 1-9, with 9 being the least ideal. According to Rizwan, the best skies in Qatar, which are located in the south of the country, are registered 4 on the Bortle scale.

The days of the month also play an important factor in the realizing of those pictures. It is best to pursue the celestial objects during the first day of the birth of a new moon, and the dying days of that moon; ideally, the first week and the last week of a lunar month.

Helix Nebula captured by Rizwan Ahmad.

Both Luana and Rizwan have put great emphasis on the importance of the community in keeping the hobby alive. Although they are two individuals belonging to that community whose exploits have been highlighted in the pages of The Peninsula, they feel very indebted to their colleagues in the community.

“There are many experienced astrophotographers and astronomy enthusiasts in Qatar. If I can take a few nice images it's only because many people helped me with their knowledge,” Luana told The Peninsula.

Similarly, Rizwan told The Peninsula that recognition for his work pales in comparison to recognition of the community, and that all he wishes to do is shine a spotlight on the hobby itself.

Both have stressed how much the darkest areas in Qatar are among their favorite spots in the country, and both hope they and many others also continue to enjoy them as much as they can, for in the eternal words of Fyodor Dostoevsky:“the darker the night, the brighter the stars.”


The Peninsula

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