Rancho Mirage Observatory
Light in the Dark
By Kristine Bonner
It is the most paradoxical thing that to see the light, we need the dark. And that’s a quality hard to find in today’s densely populated world. The desert however, offers islands of dark sky, where the stars are still vibrantly visible to human eyes, and still inspire as much awe as they did to humans thousands of years ago, when their presence was a nightly event. All our ancestors had to do to see the stars and the planets, was to look up when night fell. Modern humankind has to seek out places to see the nighttime sky in all its true grandeur.
The city of Rancho Mirage decided to help its residents become acquainted with the night sky by actually building its own observatory and staffing it with a bona fide astronomer, Eric McLaughlin. The observatory was designed as a compliment to the library, its concrete, steel and wood structure congruent with the library’s elegant and spare design so suited to the desert aesthetic. The observatory allows public access, in the vein of a public library’s purpose, not only to words and thoughts, but to the sky itself. Dedicated in March of 2018 in front of an audience of almost 1,000 people, the observatory’s star gazing programs quickly became the hot ticket for the community, with spaces filled almost as soon as dates have been announced. In addition to the star gazing events, which will be expanded in the fall as the hours of darkness increase, observatory tours are held Monday through Friday twice daily. McLaughlin also hosts educational programs on select Thursday evenings, with topics ranging from “Our Relatively Strange Universe: An Exploration of Special and General Relativity” to “Red Sky at Noon Life's Boon? An Examination of Red Dwarfs”, and “The Surface of the Sun and Space Weather”. His quirky sense of humor combined with his wealth of knowledge makes these presentations entertaining as well as informative. If you’ve missed them in person, you can watch them on the library’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCamUQaVr0_5ZUB8NXsw9Tvw. Guest speakers are soon to be added as well. Check the library’s website for a full listing of events: http://www.ranchomiragelibrary.org
McLaughlin was chosen as the resident astronomer from a field of candidates that spanned the globe. His interest and enthusiasm for astronomy, and for teaching, in addition to his engineering skills, made him a front runner right away. Since his appointment, he’s been busy hatching plans to leverage the value of the observatory to add to the community’s experience and involvement in exciting new developments in astronomy. McLaughlin’s ideas range from collaborative research projects with other observatories that would bring the scientific process of discovery right into the Coachella Valley community; to telescope nights, where residents with their own telescopes could bring them in and get assistance if they wished.
The Sky Watching Event
The observatory feels like a ship sailing in the darkness. Sky watching visitors approach in the evening along a curved, red-lit arc that leads to its specially built viewing deck, with its high walls formed to block out nearby highway and city lights. Ironically, the deck is constructed from a lustrous wood called ipe, that is so dense it doesn’t float. Four telescope pads are sited on the deck that amazingly, not only are powered and link to a server in the “Cosmic Office”, but can feed images all the way to the library for public viewing. At the skywatching event, the four pads are occupied by telescopes focused on planets and stars transiting the night’s sky above. McLaughlin points them out, as well as notable constellations, with an intense laser pointer, so that visitors can learn what the pinpoints of light in the dark sky above them are. The whole time he is showing planets and stars in the sky, he is also educating. “Think of a constellation as a region of the night sky,” he said while pointing out Sagittarius above, and “You’d think that the red stars are the hottest, but they’re not. White stars are more hot, and blue even hotter than white.”
Afterwards, visitors transition to the main telescope room, briefly passing through the dramatic Cosmic Office, with lighting specially designed to allow visibility without interrupting astronomical viewing.
Upstairs is the beautiful and impressive main telescope – a PlaneWave CDK 700, built by PlaneWave Instruments based in Los Angeles. It’s a research grade telescope, fully automated, and observatory staff can program its focus allowing the telescope and the opening in the observatory roof to rotate around to new objects. The concrete pad it sits on was the first item constructed at the site, its 120,000 lb footing isolated from the rest of the observatory to minimize vibration. Here, visitors are introduced to objects farther away in space, millions of light years from earth, taking turns to peer through the ADA compliant eyepiece to experience the distant universe.
The observatory is awesome in the truest sense of the word. The presence of the galaxies, constellations and planets spinning out their celestial patterns above us is not in most people’s daily experience. Yet once seen, it’s unforgettable. The night sky links us to a larger world, one not contained by books, computers or the vagaries of human existence. We are in a larger space than we realize. Next time the moon rises, if that’s all that can be seen, remember the myriad of existence beyond it. Then get out there and see the real thing.
Questions for Eric McLaughlin:
- Why do you think night sky viewing is so popular right now?
A truly dark sky is, sadly, a rare commodity. Sky viewing is a great way to see more than our usual context, to feel part of a something larger than our ordinary lives. We know so much more about outer space than we did, but fewer people actually experience it now.
- What is your favorite place to camp and see stars?
Joshua Tree is always a favorite of course, but a little further afield is a place called Corn Springs. It’s off of California’s Interstate 10, south of Desert Center. There’s a BLM campground nearby.
- How can people help with dark sky awareness?
I recommend checking out the International Dark Sky Association’s website, http://darksky.org. They have a lot of suggestions and initiatives, from using appropriate lighting around your home, to advocating for dark sky friendly streetlights. Less light at night is actually healthier for everyone, promoting better sleep and wake cycles.
- What would you most like to tell people about astronomy?
Sometimes people feel that outer space is just very far away. I’d like to emphasize that we are part of that context. We are always a part of the full scale of the universe.
Where Else to View the Desert Sky
The same rigors of the Southwest’s desert region’s climate and its rugged landscapes that have restricted development have also made it one of the most desirable locations for night sky viewing. This recognition aids in the preservation of that now rare resource: a sky dark enough to see stars. In 2018, Anza Borrego Desert State Park was recognized as an International Dark Sky Park. Borrego Springs, situated in the middle of Anza Borrego DSP became the world’s second International Dark Sky Community in 2009, thus making the area one of the few regions where a community and park together are so committed to the dark sky ethos. As the largest population center close to the park, Borrego Springs’s pledge to maintain a dark sky is critical to sustaining the desert state park’s status. Night sky tours are available from astronomer Dennis Mammana, find out more at http://www.borregonightskytours.com
Another favorite site for desert night sky viewing is Joshua Tree National Park, which won status as an International Dark Sky Park in 2017. The eastern side, away from Palm Springs and the Morongo Basin is quite a bit darker than the western. Joshua Tree NP holds an annual Night Sky Festival. Find out more at http://www.jtnparts.org/night-sky-festival.
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