The majestic Madain Saleh

Updated 30 October 2012
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The majestic Madain Saleh

AL-HIJR: Dating back to the second century BC, the Nabataean archaeological site, known as Madain Saleh, has long been hidden from foreign visitors in the Kingdom.
In recent years, however, Saudis have increasingly ventured to these sites.
Described as the largest and best preserved site of the Nabataean civilization south of Petra in Jordan, Madain Saleh is the first Saudi archaeological site to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
It lies 320 kilometers (200 miles) north of Madinah, and extends for some 15 square kilometers (six sq. miles).
According to UNESCO, it includes 111 tombs, most of which boast a decorated facade, cave drawings and even some pre-Nabataean inscriptions.
It also boasts intricately designed water wells that serve as a prime example of the Nabataeans’ architectural and hydraulic genius.
The Nabataeans first inhabited the area in the second century BC, but their ancient civilization existed as far back as the eighth or seventh century BC in the countries of the Levant, including Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and at times even extending into the Sinai peninsula in Egypt.
Originally nomads from the Arabian peninsula, the Nabataeans were masters of trade, dominating the incense and spice routes in the pre-Islamic period. Their civilization collapsed in 106 AD at the hands of the Roman empire.
Officials at Madain Saleh say that the number of visitors to the site reached 40,000 last year, most of them Saudis and foreign residents of the Kingdom.
They hold hopes that figure will double in 2012 with the government relaxing entry restrictions.
Though prior consent is required for access to Madain Saleh, it can now be obtained more easily from the nearby town of Al-Ola, or from Riyadh.
The highest volume of visitors is between December and March, given the lower temperatures in the otherwise scorching desert heat.
Two museums also exist on site, including one devoted to the famous Hijaz railway built by the Ottomans in the early 20th century that ran from Damascus to Madinah and passed through Al-Hijr.
The second museum, which opened its doors to visitors just two months ago, traces the pilgrimage route to Islam’s holiest city of Makkah.
On his first visit to the ancient site, Saudi national Tareq Al-Adawi from the northwestern city of Tabuk says he was “overwhelmed.”
“I encourage all Saudis to come visit this place,” he says of Madain Saleh.
Another Saudi tourist, Ahmed Al-Moghrabi, says he was “shocked by the majesty of the place.”
A small team of French archaeologists in partnership with their Saudi colleagues are now carrying out excavations on the site in an effort to preserve and better understand its ancient history.
Madain Saleh, though likely one of Saudi’s most famous archaeological sites, is not its only one.
The area bears evidence of other ancient civilizations. Just 22 kilometers from Madain Saleh is Al-Ola, located on the ancient incense route. The city served as the capital of Lihyan, an ancient Arab kingdom.
It is home to archaeological remnants that date back thousands of years, including it’s citadel which is some 8,000 years old.


First space tourist flights could come in 2019

Updated 13 July 2018
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First space tourist flights could come in 2019

WASHINGTON: The two companies leading the pack in the pursuit of space tourism say they are just months away from their first out-of-this-world passenger flights — though neither has set a firm date.
Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, and Blue Origin, by Amazon creator Jeff Bezos, are racing to be the first to finish their tests — with both companies using radically different technology.
Neither Virgin nor Blue Origin’s passengers will find themselves orbiting the Earth: instead, their weightless experience will last just minutes. It’s an offering far different from the first space tourists, who paid tens of millions of dollars to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) in the 2000s.
Having paid for a much cheaper ticket — costing $250,000 with Virgin, as yet unknown with Blue Origin — the new round of space tourists will be propelled dozens of miles into the atmosphere, before coming back down to Earth. By comparison, the ISS is in orbit 250 miles (400 kilometers) from our planet.
The goal is to approach or pass through the imaginary line marking where space begins — either the Karman line, at 100 kilometers or 62 miles, or the 50-mile boundary recognized by the US Air Force.
At this altitude, the sky looks dark and the curvature of the earth can be seen clearly.
With Virgin Galactic, six passengers and two pilots are boarded onto SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, which resembles a private jet.
The VSS Unity will be attached to a carrier spacecraft — the WhiteKnightTwo — from which it will then detach at around 49,000 feet (15,000 meters.) Once released, the spaceship will fire up its rocket, and head for the sky.
Then, the passengers will float in zero-gravity for several minutes, before coming back to Earth.
The descent is slowed down by a “feathering” system that sees the spacecraft’s tail pivot, as if arching, before returning to normal and gliding to land at Virgin’s “spaceport” in the New Mexico desert.
In total, the mission lasts between 90 minutes and two hours. During a May 29 test in California’s Mojave desert, the spaceship reached an altitude of 21 miles, heading for space.
In October 2014, the Virgin spaceship broke down in flight due to a piloting error, killing one of two pilots on board. The tests later resumed with a new craft.
The company has now also reached a deal to open a second “spaceport” at Italy’s Tarente-Grottaglie airport, in the south of the country.
Branson in May told BBC Radio 4 that he hoped to himself be one of the first passengers in the next 12 months. About 650 people make up the rest of the waiting list, Virgin said.
Blue Origin, meanwhile, has developed a system closer to the traditional rocket: the New Shepard.
On this journey, six passengers take their place in a “capsule” fixed to the top of a 60-foot-long rocket. After launching, it detaches and continues its trajectory several miles toward the sky. During an April 29 test, the capsule made it 66 miles.
After a few minutes of weightlessness, during which passengers can take in the view through large windows, the capsule gradually falls back to earth with three large parachutes and retrorockets used to slow the spacecraft.
From take-off to landing, the flight took 10 minutes during the latest test.
Until now, tests have only been carried out using dummies at Blue Origin’s West Texas site.
But one of its directors, Rob Meyerson, said in June the first human tests would come “soon.”
Meanwhile, another company official, Yu Matsutomi, said during a conference Wednesday that the first tests with passengers would take place “at the end of this year,” according to Space News.
SpaceX and Boeing are developing their own capsules to transport NASA astronauts, most likely in 2020, after delays — a significant investment that the companies will likely make up for by offering private passenger flights.
“If you’re looking to go to space, you’ll have quadruple the menu of options that you ever had before,” Phil Larson, assistant dean at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, said.
Longer term, the Russian firm that manufactures Soyuz rockets is studying the possibility of taking tourists back to the ISS. And a US start-up called Orion Span announced earlier this year it hopes to place a luxury space hotel into orbit within a few years — but the project is still in its early stages.