ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES—Behind the booming astronomy community in the United Arab Emirates’ capital is a Filipino overseas worker.
He is Alejandro Palado, a 47-year-old native of San Juan, Ilocos Sur, and the co-founder of Al Sadeem Observatory in Al Wathba, Abu Dhabi.
Al Sadeem Observatory is the first observatory in Abu Dhabi. It officially opened to the public in 2016, welcoming curious sky watchers from all walks of life. From this modest property by the outskirts of the Arab nation’s capital, Al Sadeem brings them closer to the stars.
As the director of the facility, Palado manages the observatory’s equipment, particularly their prized 16-inch Meade LX850 telescope. The farthest sky object it had ever taken a photo of? The Messier 101, otherwise known as the Pinwheel Galaxy, a face-on spiral galaxy in the constellation Ursa Major — 21 million light-years away from Earth.
Palado is also a favorite resource person of the region’s local magazines and broadsheets for anticipated astronomical events and unusual phenomena in the night sky.
When he’s not entertaining questions from the media, Palado can be found in the observatory’s dome with their resident astronomer Aldrin Gabuya, a 23-year-old kabayan and alumnus of Rizal Technological University’s Astronomy Technology course. Palado and Gabuya work side by side in giving lectures to visitors. Usually, they are students doing field trips at the observatory or foreign tourists with Al Sadeem on their bucket list.
“It is an immense honor to have been trusted with such a responsibility to inform and educate people about astronomy, especially here abroad,” Palado shared with FlipScience. “I still get a bit overwhelmed when the Director-General of the UAE Space Agency calls me every time there is unusual sky activity.”
How it all started
Like many overseas Filipino workers, Palado left the country for a high-paying job abroad.
But his desire for the cosmos did not wane. Among the first things he did upon reaching the UAE was to look for a group that shared his passion.
Palado initially thought it would be easy. He learned in school that the Arabs were one of the earliest practitioners of astronomy; in his mind, finding one group to share his passion with would be a breeze. Unfortunately, his search was in vain. “I couldn’t find one group where I can satiate my thirst for astronomy, so I decided to start one.”
In 2005, Palado founded the Abu Dhabi Astronomy Group. Most of the members were European and Indian expatriates whom Palado had occasionally met up with over coffee to discuss the latest astronomical phenomena or at an overnight camp in the desert.
“Walang ibang source ang newspapers at magazines noon about sky events kundi ang Abu Dhabi Astronomy Group and that was really something,” Palado beamed. “If you’ll just have a closer look on UAE’s astronomy in 2005, it was way, way, different from today.”
Indeed, astronomy was not as booming as it was more than a decade ago. In the Philippines, for example, while the oldest astronomical organization was founded in 1971, it was only in 2007 when the country rolled out its very own astronomy course.
Today, the first members of Palado’s astronomy group have branched out not only in the UAE, but also in Europe. They are cultivating astronomy in their own way by forming their own brood or establishing their own observatories.
More than just a dream: Al Sadeem
But this was just the beginning of Palado’s astronomy dream.
An Emirati named Thabet Al Qaissieh contacted Palado for a project. Al Qaissieh, an avid astronomy enthusiast himself, wanted to take his passion a step further. He wanted to achieve this by having his own observation area.
“One day, Thabet asked me to visit their farm and check what telescope I can set up in the area,” Palado shared. “I saw the place was dark enough to see so many stars with the naked eye.”
“He [Palado] told me there was a lot of interest in astronomy in Abu Dhabi but there wasn’t a place to bring people together,” said Mr Al Qaissieh in an interview with The National.
It took eight months and 750,000 dirhams — over 10 million pesos — for Al Sadeem, meaning “origin” in English, to become reality.
Driven by passion
Unbeknownst to many, Palado is a graduate of Respiratory Therapy in Mary Chiles College, Manila.
“When I was on my third year [in high school], I took astronomy as my elective [subject] that deepened my interest with the planets and the stars,” Palado said. “I had also my memorable first with a planetarium. It was a galvanizing experience that stuck with me for a long time.”
Astronomy has captured him since he was a little kid. Despite finishing a degree in the medical field, he pursued a job teaching what he loved.
“I became a science (general Science, biology and chemistry) teacher in the Philippines that deepened my knowledge in astronomy,” Palado shared. “Dito na rin ako nangarap na sana may sapat akong equipment para sa observations na gusto kong gawin.”
At present, Palado has been widening his knowledge in astronomy. He enrols in various courses on Coursera, a website offering exceptional online learning resources. He has also finished short courses on Archeoastronomy and understanding Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Currently, he is taking up a data-driven astronomy course offered by the University of Sydney. With the way things are going, Palado will surely continue to chase stars in the desert for a very long time. –MF
Author: Cez Verzosa
Cez Verzosa is a former news producer at a local television network and a product of the University of Santo Tomas journalism school in España, Manila. She is currently in the United Arab Emirates, busy looking for camels.