Talking with stargazer Joe Witherspoon puts things into perspective.

When you look up at the night sky, you are looking at between 200 to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way.

That's a lot of stars. 

Witherspoon, who owns some of the best star and solar telescopes in the state, shares both what he has and what he knows.

Witherspoon recently invited The Montana Standard to visit his home Cottontail Observatory, three miles east of Twin Bridges and view the sun.

Looking into the solar telescope, you see a microscopic speck.  The sun is a million miles across in diameter and is about 93 million miles away from earth. But in Witherspoon's solar telescope, you are looking at its edge up close with the precision of a microscope.

The speck looks red hot and flammable. Let your eye linger for a moment on that hot red dot and you see filaments lift off it, like red blood vessels blowing about. 

Those seemingly infinitesimal red lines are called prominences. They are gases and they are rising 100,000 miles high off the sun. But in Witherspoon's solar telescope, they look thinner than red thread and appear to be moving only inches from the sun's surface.

Mike Hawkaluk, an amateur astronomer, said he travels approximately 200 miles from his home in Ronan to attend Witherspoon's Montana Star Watch party, which is this coming Friday, Saturday and Sunday (see breakout box), as well as his once-a-month public star-gazing opportunities. Hawkaluk said he is jealous of Witherspoon's equipment, but grateful that Witherspoon is so generous with giving others an opportunity to see what he can see of the heavens.

"It's unbelievable at times," Hawkaluk told the Standard of star or sun gazing from Witherspoon's Cottontail Observatory.

Witherspoon, who loves nothing better than sitting in his home office and rattling off science facts and figures, shared some additional glimpses into what's going on up above. 

When our sun dies, it will expand outward by at least 93 million miles and reach earth. Our planet will be destroyed.

The sun will continue in this bloated, dying state for billions of years.

Don't worry. This won't happen for another 5 to 8 billion years from now, Witherspoon said.

Witherspoon moved to his 83-acre spread from his home outside Tacoma, Wash., in 2010 because of the area's dark night skies and his love of astronomy. He first got excited about looking at the heavens when he was in fourth grade.

Now 74, Witherspoon is a retired business owner. He also spent 20 years in the military. Witherspoon can indulge his passion and devote himself full-time to what he loves.

Nestled in the foothills of the Tobacco Root Mountains, Witherspoon offers free, public star gazing parties at his observatory near Twin Bridges (see break-out box). The Jefferson Valley spreads out to the southwest of his home.

He also volunteers his services to schools. He has been hitting the road with a magic hat full of planetary surprises for about 20 years.

To demonstrate to kids the phases of the moon, Witherspoon uses such high-tech gadgets as a Styrofoam ball on a stick. On one side of the Styrofoam ball, Witherspoon has drawn a smiley face and written the word, "hi!".

To show kids what moon craters are like, he brings 25 pounds of flour, cocoa to sprinkle on top and rocks. The kids get to drop the rocks into the concoction.

To give students the sense of distance between planets and the sun, he takes cash register tape, measures it out using the length of his arms, and tears it off. He writes "the sun" on one end and "Pluto" on the other. Then he folds it in half and asks, "what's in between the sun and Pluto?"

The answer might not be what you expect: it's the planet Uranus.

Witherspoon also brings stomp rockets when he visits the schools. He sometimes takes his stomp rockets on the road to set up at county fairs, as well. 

Stomp rockets are amazingly simple: built out of a one liter bottle, duct tape, PVC pipe, adhesive tape, two paper clips and a playing card, Witherspoon blows into the pipe, fills the plastic bottle with air, and encourages kids -- and grownups -- to stomp on the plastic bottle. The result is a rocket that flies off into the air, traveling about half a block.

"I hear kids say math and science are too hard," Witherspoon told the Standard. "So I came up with the stomp rocket." 

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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