The stars guided Joe Witherspoon year after year
The way Joe Witherspoon and his wife Gwen decided to move to Twin Bridges in 2010 says a lot about how astronomy informed Joe’s entire life.
The couple looked at light pollution maps to decide where to move. Montana and Wyoming were particularly dark states, where light pollution was not a huge issue, and the stars could be seen well at night.
“We looked at it and said, this is it,” Joe said about the property that now contains the Witherspoon’s home and the Cottontail Observatory.
Joe’s astronomy fascination started young. When he was in the fourth grade living in Wheatland, Wyo., he noticed an orange glow behind a farmer’s barn down the street from where he lived. He set out to see if he could offer any help, thinking it was on fire. As it turned out, the orange glow came from the moon rising behind the barn.
“Maybe I oughta learn something about this stuff,” was his takeaway, and that he did.
Astronomy was taught and discussed more in the fifties than it is now, Joe noticed. In May, he taught a class for kindergarteners in Twin Bridges involving an activity where students were to order the planets from the sun to Pluto. Joe remembers by the end of the class teachers were learning just as much as students.
After the orange barn glow experience, Joe took it upon himself to study all of the constellations and became welllearned in using the North Star, Polaris, for navigation. In 1959, Joe was in the army participating in a night navigation course. The goal was to get the recruits to use a compass and to count their steps to help them find their way in the dark.
“I didn’t have to count steps or anything. I just walked,” Joe said. Those in charge thought he cheated since he completed the task so quickly. Joe spent 21 years in intelligence in the army, from 1959-1980.
He looked towards the stars while in the army and now talks about constellations and asterisms, a collection of stars different from a constellation, with such ease and rattles off locations of both off the top of his head.
Mars is the big attraction in the sky right now, Joe said, coming up right over the horizon at about 9:30 p.m. Around the sixth of October, Mars will make its closest approach to Earth this year. With a decent telescope, Joe said you can see snow caps on Mars.
Joe locates the constellations and Gwen knows the stories behind the names. Her telling of the origin of the Northern Crown of Stars, Corona Borealis, was full of personality. “The American Indians have a story and the Greeks have the story. Personally, I think the Greeks have the better story and it goes like this,” she began.
Essentially it was a tale of battle between two kings resulting in the prince and princess of conflicting kings falling in love and fleeing, and the princess ended up a damsel in distress. A god from above saw the beautiful, distressed princess and came down as a mortal, swearing to never leave her and demonstrating his integrity by throwing his crown into the sky.
After getting out of the army, Joe still did not have a telescope. The Witherspoons moved to Tacoma, Wash. and Joe joined an astronomy club where he got his first, six-inch telescope in 1991. As hobbies tend to go, his collection expanded as time passed.
Now he has a 20-inch, a 10-inch, an 11-inch and a 50 milliliter Hydrogen Alpha telescope that allows him to look at the chromosphere, the area just beyond the surface of the sun. His collection also includes a 15-inch computerized telescope that he uses for astrophotography, or taking pictures of space, and research at his observatory.
Joe was always assigned responsibility of the star parties in Tacoma for the astronomy club. His life-long pursuit of star knowledge made him the person who knew it well enough to explain to others.
Joe became interested in astronomy young. Young minds are great absorbers—studies show that children learning a second language as early as prekindergarten are able to retain the language easier than if they started older. Toddlers can rattle of multi-syllable dinosaur names with ease. And Joe can talk for 45 minutes straight about astronomy with the flair of a seasoned academic.
“When you talk to the teachers, what they don’t realize is astronomy actually should be taught down in the elementary school. It’s what they call an introductory science course,” he said. In his view, astronomy forms the basis of all science, noting that each element in the periodic table was formed by a supernova explosion.
If a teacher in the area wants an astronomy class, Joe is happy to accommodate. He prefers to stray away from books as he teaches. “If you can show this, how this works, they understand it a lot better,” he explained.
“I’m always amazed,” Joe said regarding the sky. “The biggest thing that amazes me is just the size and the scope of it.” Space is mind-boggling, he said, and the best way to conceptualize the vastness is to put it into terms you can visualize. His example involved Jupiter, the solar system’s largest planet.
Jupiter is 86,881 miles in diameter—bump it up to 100,000 for easy math. Earth is 7,917 miles in diameter, 10,000 for easy math. One could fit 1,000 Earths in Jupiter and 1,000 Jupiters in the sun which hails 865,370 miles in diameter.
Joe occasionally works on research projects at Cottontail or dabbles in a bit of astrophotography. Right now, though, his focus is on getting astronomy back into the schools.
“Maybe somebody will decide this science and math stuff isn’t so bad after all,” he said.
Mars Star Party
The Cottontail Observatory will host a two night star party with the planet Mars the main attraction. With Mars coming close to the Earth we should be able to see the snow caps on Mars. Other objects in the night sky will be Jupiter with moons, Saturn with its rings, the 7 Sisters with many other celestial objects.
Event will be on Oct. 16 & 17 (weather permitting). Event time from 7:30 p.m. to midnight. The stars come out about 7:45 p.m. Mars will rise at 6:39 p.m. on the 16th and 6:34 p.m. on the 17th. We will have a new Moon for this event.