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Starspotting

An August night at Valley of Fire

Story by Steven Yan August 17th, 2014

I-15. BAKER, CA

As we coasted off the highway, the car shuddered and sighed as if it too needed a breather. I was in search of that Limon-Pepino Gatorade that I only seemed to be able to find at gas stations in Central California and the Southwest. This had become one of my road trip rituals. Kind of like how I only drink ginger ale on airplanes.

We had been driving for a solid 8 hours. With every mile driven, we descended further into the furnace that was the Southwest that day. Even with the windows rolled up and the A/C on, we couldn’t escape the relentless, radiant heat from above, cooking our arms and legs through the windshield.

Bottle of lime-cucumber liquid magic in hand, I strolled out of Chevron. Behind the dilapidated Big Boy Motel, the world’s tallest thermometer quantified the obvious: it was a hot day — 111 degrees hot — and it was going to be a hot night.

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RETURNING TO valley of fire

Two hours later, we found ourselves in a familiar place, albeit much hotter than it had been last May. The desert was eerily quiet under a blanket of thick, hot air. I was surprised to see this desert tortoise and white-sided jackrabbit out and about.

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Sunset, looking south over Valley of Fire from Rainbow Vista.

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FINDING NORTH

The clear night provided perfect conditions for astrophotography. While I set up my Vixen Polarie Star Tracker on my tripod, Cec set out to find Polaris so I could align my camera with the Earth’s rotation. Though the traditional method of finding the Big Dipper and tracing a line to the Little Dipper is straightforward, technology makes this even easier. I had downloaded SkyView on my iPhone, which will direct you to any star in the sky.

Cec retired to the tent, where we had left the rain cover off due to the heat. Not a bad view to fall asleep to.

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URSA MAJOR

To the northwest, the Big Dipper shone vibrantly.

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the milky way

Even to the naked eye, the purple and white band of the Milky Way was unmistakable in the night sky. A shot with blown focus still developed beautifully.

The streaks of light across the frame are airplanes landing at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas.

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From 60 miles away, the bright lights of Las Vegas glowed softly on the horizon.

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MOONRISE

We were very close to a new moon, so I wasn’t expecting to get much help in front-lighting the landscape. I was lucky to catch a moonrise while shooting my first star trail. The clear night, faint silver moonlight, and red sandstone give the final result an eerie Martian quality.

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STAR TRAILS

My last shot of the night. Some dry lightning off in the distance gave the horizon more color. While setting up for this shot, the desert wind began to blow. I had to shield my tripod from the gusts with my car and weigh it down further with my backpack.

This star trail is a composite of 40 five minute exposures. I added a 40 second delay between frames in an attempt to reduce noise by letting the sensor cool. Unfortunately, it left some gaps in the star trails but gave it an interesting perforated look.

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Venus-Jupiter conjunction

At dawn, I peered out of the tent and saw Venus on the horizon with what appeared to be another star next to it. I didn’t realize I was witnessing a very special celestial event — the closest planetary conjunction of the year.

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SUNRISE

When you watch the morning sun crest the eastern horizon at Valley of Fire, don’t forget to look behind you. That’s where the true sunrise is.

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Valley of Fire State Park, Moapa Valley, NV, United States