Best of 2012: Dr Khalid Al Subai interview

The tiny gulf state of Qatar is paving the way to discovering new alien planets. Astronomer Dr Khalid Al Subai says how his team is helping to answer some of the world’s most profound questions
By Claire Valdini
Sun 24 Jun 2012 08:56 AM

When a team of explorers discover a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth in this summer’s US box office hit, ‘Prometheus’, it leads them on a journey to the darkest corners of the universe and a battle to save the future of the human race.

The plot might well be fictional but across the world, in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, a group of scientists has been researching the possibility of other life forms in the solar system for several years. The team, led by Dr Khalid Al Subai, leader of the Qatar Exoplanet Survey and a research director at Qatar Foundation, has — with the help of scientists in the UK and the US — already discovered two new planets.

“This kind of science is addressing very profound questions [such as] are we alone? Is life special or can [it] be common? These questions have intrigued human beings for a long time and we are now approaching to answer these kinds of questions,” Al Subai tells Arabian Business.

“Qatar is considered the only country that is doing research in this topic; actually it’s the only Arab and Islamic country in the whole world doing research on this topic,” he adds.

Qatar, which overtook Luxembourg to become the world’s richest nation in 2010, is spending billions of dollars in new areas of research as it looks to diversify its economy away from oil and gas. The Gulf state’s sovereign wealth fund has acquired stakes in some of the world’s biggest landmarks, is set to play host to the 2022 World Cup, and now it is turning its attentions to reviving the Arab world’s rich history of astronomy.

Less than two years after Al Subai established his Doha-based research team in 2008, it discovered its first ‘alien’ planet. The gas planet, named Qatar-1b, is 1.1 times larger than Jupiter with a diametre 1.2 times that of the solar system’s biggest planet. It orbits an orange dwarf star (named Qatar-1 in honour of the discovery) located 550 light years from Earth in the northern constellation Draco.

The 2010 discovery of the ‘hot Jupiter’ is significant in that it provides new theories about our solar system, explains Al Subai. “We have theories about how the planet was formed and our most probable theory is what we call the creation. That is that you have the centre, or a large dust cloud that rotates around a star, and from there it is solidified and condensed. It is an old theory but it is the most probable one.

“By finding big planets very close to stars it throws these theories away, it tells us that not everything will happen as you expect. What strikes us really is how unique and stable our solar system is; this is really the lesson. Even our stars and our planet Earth are a completely different story; it is exceptional. The idea is we go too far to come back to the original point and with a lot of appreciation to what we have now.”

The discovery of Qatar-1b was followed by a second discovery of Qatar 2b and Qatar 2c in June 2011. Al Subai, who spent the best part of his early career working for state-backed Qatar Petroleum, says he expects the team to discover two more planets before the end of the year. “By the end of this year we should have maybe not only one but a couple [of new planets],” he says optimistically.

The Qatar-funded team works closely with scientists at St. Andrews University, Leicester University and America’s Harvard University using data from the Gulf state’s wide-angle cameras in New Mexico to locate the planets.

Al Subai, who studied his PhD in astrophysics at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland and received a master’s degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Alaska — Fairbanks, says the three countries each bring their own an area of expertise. “We really complement each other; I head the team up in Qatar and… add to the software which is researching, St Andrews works on the archiving and the database and when we find eventually a signal that is promising we need to really confirm it and we go to Harvard, which has a large dedicated telescope that can confirm the signal for us,” he says.

Research conducted by the Qatari-led team is not only putting the country on the international map but also helping to revive the Arab world’s history of astronomy, which centuries ago discovered planets as well as the instruments to observe and measure the stars and planets.

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Al Subai admits that his team faced some resistance before it was granted permission by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to name the planets after Qatar but the fact that thousands of stars and astronomical terms are still referred to by their Arabic name helped appease the situation.

“Arabs have many names in the stars, actually all of the bright stars you see have Arabic names from centuries ago that are still used but people just don’t understand their [origin] but the people at the IAU understand it, so they said it was no problem,” he explains.

The team recently applied for a $5m grant from the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) to further its research. The grant will fund the addition of a new observation station in either Iran or India. “We would like to put another station very close by, maybe in Iran or India. They will continuously survey the skies and that will increase a lot our chances of finding [new planets],” Al Subai explains.

“The reality is our countries in the Gulf are flat, they have no mountains and India and Iran are famous for their huge mountains that go above the bad areas in the atmosphere [enabling us to] observe. You can observe from here [in the Gulf] but the signal is weak and all of the bad things in the atmosphere like humidity and dust really add a lot of noise that is very difficult to take out,” he adds.

Long term, Al Subai hopes to create a permanent centre for research in the Gulf state, which will not only enable him to continue this research but also help encourage young Arabs to take interest in astronomy.

“We are hoping that eventually we’ll have a centre for research and that will be permanent. That would involve teaching and at the same time research. This is very important, it’s really sad to know we have a great heritage in astronomy and our generation right now doesn’t look up at all, they are not fascinated [by astronomy],” he says.

He adds that not enough is being done to encourage more young Arabs to pursue the sciences. “Qatar, like all of the Gulf countries, was very reluctant; sciences are not traditional. Unfortunately most of the Gulf is looking for things that are more applied; something that results in a product that you can go to the market and sell,” he explains.

Part of the problem, he adds, is a lack of role models across the Arab world and encouragement at school level.

“Role models in the Arab world are usually businessmen — which is fine — but in order to build a rich culture you need a role model in every area,” he says. “The problem is attracting young people to study science; our students in high school don’t want to study science, they opt for business… and so we have a huge shortage in people going for science in general.

“Astronomy is a good introduction to science that can attract young people. Just go to any school and you have your five or six graders talking about this and you see their excitement. You need to get people excited about science if you want to build a rich country with rich people, you need to build science and love for science,” he adds.

That said, Al Subai — who was forced to study engineering at university rather than pursue astronomy due to the lack of teaching facilities in the region — says part of the QNRF grant will provide it with enough funding to take on three PhD students. “This will also allow us to train young Qatari graduates to help them get their PhD. We lack qualified human resources in the Gulf so it will allow us to look for discoveries and at the same time build human capacity.”

Sending a Qatar-led research team into space searching for life forms might be some way off yet, but Al Subai could well be paving the way for future generations.

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