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The Rancho Mirage Library and Observatory
The Rancho Mirage Library and Observatory, built with “use-it-or-lose-it” state education funding, opened March 2018. Courtesy photo
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Rancho Mirage observatory temporarily moves stargazing online

An observatory in Rancho Mirage? Who knew? I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t.

Maybe it’s not all my fault, though. It’s been a difficult time these last two years trying to accommodate visitors at many attractions, especially a not-so-usual observatory in the desert.

“(We’ve remained closed for) stargazing due to our limited capacity for social distancing and the need for enhanced safety protocols when sharing an eyepiece at the telescope,” explains the observatory’s Program Coordinator Lauren Zuckerberg. “So, in place of in-person events, we’ve been creating content for our YouTube channel since the beginning of the pandemic.”

We typically think of observatories as mountaintop bastions, but this one is attached to a library in the Coachella Valley. The futuristic, double-domed building sits adjacent to Highway 111, the main thoroughfare that takes travelers through the string of desert cities that includes Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Palm Desert, Indian Wells and La Quinta.

The dome of the Rancho Mirage Observatory
The dome of the Rancho Mirage Observatory serves two purposes: It houses the CDK700 telescope and serves as a “screen” for short, space-themed films that take visitors to galaxies far, far away. Seven projectors, four speakers, one subwoofer and a team of creative designers make the journeys spectacular. Courtesy photo

“People think there is a silo in the middle of the city,” jokes City Astronomer Eric McLaughlin, who may be one of the few people to have such a title. He grew up in Southern California and vacationed with his family in the Coachella Valley, “so when I was wrapping up grad work in astronomy (at San Diego State University) and saw they were building an observatory in one of my favorite places,” he had to apply.

McLaughlin was hired a week before the observatory opened in March 2018.

The origin of the observatory?

“The city had some use-it-or-lose-it-type state funding for an educational facility,” Zuckerberg explains, “and after soliciting ideas from the community, the city council proceeded to investigate the construction of an observatory. After determining it was feasible, they made the project official.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has quashed nearly all in-person stargazing but McLaughlin and Zuckerberg are hoping to resume in the coming months. They are looking forward to hosting visitors who come to peer through the 27-inch Plane Wave CDK telescope with remote-controlled technology.

I don’t claim to understand what that means, but it allows users to see objects millions of light-years from Earth. I was among a special group in mid-November that looked through the telescope and saw the moon, which was partially veiled in clouds, but still bright enough to look impressive through the lens.

The Rancho Mirage Library and Observatory
The Rancho Mirage Library and Observatory has had to suspend star-gazing gatherings on the deck of the facility because of the pandemic but hopes to resume in the coming months. The best time to look at the nighttime sky is during the new-moon phase because a full moon’s light can outshine other celestial bodies. Courtesy photo

The best time for viewing other heavenly bodies, though, is during the new phase of the moon (when it is not visible), or the first quarter, McLaughlin says. That way, the moon doesn’t look flat and its light doesn’t outshine the planets and the stars.

“What I love about working here and …about astronomy in general, is that I appreciate the vast context in which we live and can share that with everyone,” McLaughlin says. “It’s essentially impossible to capture in any other way.”

The observatory also has an outdoor deck just below the dome that provides another area for stargazing using the observatory’s smaller telescopes, or visitors can bring their own. High walls around the deck keep out light from below. From here, we took a look at Jupiter and Saturn. The partially cloudy night didn’t give us the clearest view, but we could see the planets and one of Jupiter’s moons.

But wait…there’s even more, and weather conditions don’t matter for this feature.

It’s the Integrated Space Theater system that projects astronomical films on the inside of the observatory’s closed dome. The system includes seven projectors, four speakers and one subwoofer that gives visitors short, stunning astronomical films.

Our demonstration “trip” through the universe felt as though we were in a flight simulator with a vivid, panoramic view of the universe with not a bit of interference from inclement weather.