I was fast asleep in my warm sleeping bag when I suddenly heard someone calling my name. It was Chirag Upreti. What time was it? About 4:00 a.m. That’s when I’d instructed him to wake me up even though it had only been a few hours since we finished our “night” photo session in Big Bend National Park. After putting on layers of clothes to protect against the chill of the west Texas air, I quietly left our tent and looked to the southeast.
Rising up above Casa Grande, one of the tallest mountains in the park, was the Milky Way against a black sky. We could just make out the array of constellations – Scorpius, Sagittarius and Cygnus – against the brilliant sea of stars. Jupiter shone brightly, as well as Mars and Saturn. Sleep could wait. Chirag, Preston Stahly, Gowrishankar L. had to photograph the pre-dawn appearance of our galaxy.
For a few years my friend Rush Dudley from Albuquerque had been talking about a Big Bend trip. It is one of the darkest spots in the continental U.S. and an International Dark Sky Park. Initially, Preston, his wife, Linda, Chirag and my friend Ken Spencer, president of the Astronomical Society of Long Island, signed on for the trip. Then Gowri and Antoine Ribaut joined us, to make a party of eight.
Originally, the trip was supposed to last a week. Then Chirag suggested checking out White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico, adding four days to the adventure. The plan was to fly on March 14 into El Paso, Texas, which is close to White Sands and the best airport for Big Bend.
We set up a base camp at a state park near Alamogordo for the New Mexico part of the trip. At first, there were six of us. Backcountry camping at White Sands is booked on a first-come-first-served. When we first inquired about it, we were told there was no camping that night due to missile testing. Missiles? Yes. White Sands Missile Range is nearby, and occasionally overnight camping in the park is closed because of testing.
As long as we were there, we decided to visit the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo. It’s an amazing place for space fans, with rockets, missiles, spacecraft and test vehicles on display in a big outdoor area. Most of the aircraft were tested at the White Sands range. The four-story museum has displays about the history of space flight and exhibits of space-related objects, including spacesuits and space food.
Preston and I woke up early the day after the missile tests and were first in line for one of the 10 camp sites at the monument. After securing our permit, we went back for breakfast to the campsite. Gowri joined us later that day, and then the seven of us headed to White Sands.
The park is a surreal landscape of rolling dunes, the largest collection of gypsum in the world. In between the dunes are flat stretches of land where desert plants scratch out a living. Our campsite was in one of those bowls, and at night you could only see the dunes surrounding the site and the stars above.
The first night cloud cover prevented us from getting nice sunset shots on the dunes. As darkness fell, some clouds persisted but a few stars peeked through to the south. The light from Alamogordo reflected brightly off the cirrus clouds and faintly off the sand. Once the clouds partly cleared, the stars shone very bright.
On our drive down to Big Bend, we spent one night in a hotel in Marfa, Texas, a small town in far west Texas with a hip arts community. Antoine met us there, and then our group was complete.
The next day, after breakfast at a diner called Buns ‘N Roses, we hit the road for Big Bend. Our destination was the Chisos Basin campground, just below the tall peaks of the Chisos Mountains. Rush had reserved two adjacent sites so we had room to spread out. The campground was full but didn’t seem overly crowded. After setting up the tents and unloading Rush’s truck, we looked at maps to start scouting locations for pictures.
On Sunday, March 18, our first night at Big Bend, there was going to be a nice conjunction of a crescent moon, Venus and Mercury right after sunset. The best landscape for the shot was through “The Window,” a V-shaped opening in the mountains as you look west from Chisos Basin. Chirag, Gowri and I drove around for hours looking for good vantage points. In the end, we simply walked to another part of the campground and got some nice photos of the conjunction and the brilliant post-sunset clouds. That bit of mountainous terrain reminded Chirag and Gowri of the shape of India.
Earlier that day Antoine and Preston were busy setting up their tripods and mounts and in Antoine’s case, a fairly large imaging rig. On light pollution maps Big Bend appears in an area that is mostly black, corresponding to a Bortle scale of about 1. Even from our camp, the stars were incredible. With little to no moon the first few evenings, Preston and Antoine spent their nights imaging a few feet from our tents.
We spent our days scouting locations, and every other day we head to the Rio Grande Village campsite for showers. We also had the good fortune to be close to the Chisos Mountain Lodge, where we sometimes retreated for a meal in the restaurant. Ken brought binoculars and enjoyed seeing objects under the dark sky. Rush occasionally headed out to do some photography, but he was content to remain in the camp at night, as was Preston’s wife, Linda.
Chirag, Gowri and I ventured out to different locations each evening, marveling at the array of stars overhead. Sirius, Orion, and the Pleiades were high in the sky as it darkened. We managed to get a good look at Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky. At locations above about 33 degrees north latitude, it’s not visible, but at the 29 degrees N of the park, we had a good view. The moon grew slowly every day, lighting up more and more of the landscape, though not interfering much with our view of the stars.
One night I was rushing to finish some plant photos as the moon’s light faded. Chirag suddenly shouted, “Look at the moon setting!” On the edge of a mountain, most of the lit crescent had disappeared, leaving the earthshine portion still visible above the ridge. The earthshine was so bright, it looked like a full moon setting, although a dim one. We stood there transfixed, not even thinking to take any pictures. The next night Chirag and I saw a similar moonset when we were hiking and that time, we were ready with telephoto lenses.
The late winter sky was above us in the evenings, but sky charts showed the “summer” Milky Way rising about 3:30 a.m. from our latitude. That meant not much sleep after a night shooting session before the alarm went off for the pre-dawn outing. It was worth the effort. From outside our tents we could see the Sagittarius-Scorpius region climb past Casa Grande, one of the taller peaks in Big Bend. Walking to a nearby parking lot away from the few lights in the camp, we were in near total darkness watching the Milky Way sweep across the eastern horizon.
Our final adventure was at a canyon called Ernst Tinaja, about a mile hike from a backcountry campsite, which was a few miles down a very rough dirt road. Preston and Chirag had scouted out this location earlier and thought it would be a good location for photos. The three of us plus Antoine ate dinner at the backcountry site, then hiked into the canyon at sunset. Two small natural cisterns led into the canyon, which was perfectly placed for landscape photos. The almost quarter moon was high in the sky near Aldebaran.
One shot we planned for was an ISS flyover around 9:30 p.m. It cut a perfect diagonal through the “V” of the canyon, past the moon and over our heads to the northeast. We spent the next few hours exploring the canyon by moonlight before heading back to the Chisos campsite.
All in all, it was a great trip. Somehow we had clear skies almost all the time we were taking photographs, and among the eight of us, we managed to capture a combination of landscapes and deep sky objects under an incredibly dark sky.