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    Tech Tools for Assessing the “Soft” Skills

    By: Cathy Swan in Tech&Learning Magazine, March 2014

    Lynn Powers with her amateur astrophysicists, Madeline Kelly on the left and Hannah Cebulla on the right.

    Search for “soft skills” in Google and you’ll find 45,800,000 results. The first screen includes business Web sites, Web sites listing job and interview skills, career developer Web sites, and an article from National Careers Service asking, “What are the ‘soft’ skills employers want?” The U.S. Department of Labor links to a curriculum focused on teaching workforce readiness skills to youth ages 14-21 called “Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success.” The course consists of six modules: communication, enthusiasm and attitude, teamwork, networking, problem-solving and critical thinking, and professionalism. The one link focusing on education is titled “Should schools teach soft skills?” Forty-five million sites think we should.

    Reflection and Goal Setting: Google Docs and Spreadsheets

    Hannah Magnan and Susan Steidl, New Canaan High School English teachers in Connecticut, formulated a plan to teach students to reflect more deeply and to appreciate reflecting as an essential life skill.

    They ask students to submit work on a Google doc, which receives written feedback in the form of inserted comments from their teacher and peers. Students document and track this feedback on their own spreadsheets in Google Drive. After gathering enough evidence, each student evaluates the feedback, searches for patterns used to develop specific writing goals, submits plans for achieving those goals, and writes reflections on each step of the implementation process. Since the entire process is done online, the individual student practices giving, receiving, and evaluating feedback from various sources on a variety of posted assignments. At the end of the process, students reflect on their progress and decide whether they need more instruction, practice, or feedback on their current goal, or re-evaluate whether it is time to set a new goal. At the end of the course, student responses to the goal-setting process were overwhelmingly positive, specifically due to the high level of autonomy, differentiation, and accountability the method afforded.

    Collaboration, Discussion, and Metacognition: Moodle

    Right down the hall, Evan Remley and Bob Stevenson co-teach an American Studies class of 45 students where they use many of the interactive features built into Moodle to cultivate collaboration and facilitate meaningful discussion among students. These features include forums, peer revision tools, blogs, wikis, and the other functions of the read-and-write Web application. With continual use and timelined access to the feedback cycle, teachers and students can reflect thoughtfully on their progress and set meaningful goals around content and processes. Most powerfully, Moodle’s 24/7 accessibility through email, apps, tablets, and smartphones helps students and their support networks take control of their own learning beyond the classroom. This powerful tool enables students to cultivate skills that, once mastered, they can use for a lifetime.

    Future Thinking, Risk-Taking, Coping with Failure and Collaboration with Experts: DropBox, CoolWIki, Online Databases, and Data from Expert Sites

    In a Bozeman, Montana, high school Lynn Powers is creating future thinkers engaged in the real work of adding and creating new knowledge in astrophysics. Students use CoolWiki and DropBox to share research, photos, and findings with professors and experts at CalTech and Harvard. They use archived data from two telescopes to determine if stars are being formed in NGC281, also known as the Pac-Man Nebula, and work with an expert at CalTech to learn to program in Python to analyze these data and draw conclusions. They presented their findings at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington D.C. in early January. John Barell, author and expert on inquiry and problem-based 21st century learning (morecuriousminds.com) said, “These students are on the frontiers of new knowledge…their work …contains elements that can be transferred to any classroom: reverence for and openness to making mistakes/‘failure’, which means we try and try, take some risks, fail sometimes, learn and improve.” These are soft skills that are crucial to any scientific endeavor.

    Global and Cultural Communication and Understanding: Google Drive, Picasa, Voicethread, Skype, Facebook, and Twitter

    The Center for Global Studies (CGS), a magnet school in Norwalk, Connecticut, under the directorship of Roz McCarthy, is focused on global understanding. Students at CGS are learning their second or third language and routinely communicate with their sister schools in Japan, China, and Arabic-speaking countries. They use Google Presentations to create projects, Picasa to share photos, Voicethread to allow a spoken exchange to be delivered in the target language, as well as Facebook and Twitter for social networking.

    Most projects are shared online with the sister schools and designed to demonstrate what it means to live in their respective countries . Some projects, like the Voicethreads, are collaboratively created with partners in the target culture. Once online sharing has occurred, there is often a Skype session where students can talk about the work. Speaking and communicating with other cultures requires a different set of norms; therefore students have an opportunity to learn what topics should and should not be discussed.

    Critical Thinking, Organization, Time Management, and Independent Thinking: Mentor Mob, Socrative, BlendSpace, Google Voice, Blogger, YouTube, and Teacher Tube

    MentorMob is an online playlist tool that is useful for teaching time management, personal organization, and independent thinking because kids can be given step-by-step guidance that can be accessed chronologically or randomly depending on the student’s individual need. Students can also be asked to create a MentorMob file for their own work, breaking it down into manageable chunks and creating the steps needed to complete a project.

    Michelle Luhtala, librarian at New Canaan High School in Connnecticut, uses MentorMob to assess research skills as high school juniors begin work on a research paper. Luhtala measures research skills through a 20-question pre-assessment on Socrative.com that students take on mobile technology (their own or library-owned). Each class’s overall performance on each question is compiled and published in MentorMob, and posted to the library’s instructional blog on Blogger, sorting the questions from lowest number of correct responses to highest.

    Teachers are also given individual student performance results in ranked order so they can quickly determine who might need the most support. Individual students receive their overall scores as well as the ability to self-remediate using MentorMob’s playlist. Here they can access a “step” for each pre-assessment question that links to a mini-instructional module explaining the correct response using Google Presentations, NCHS teacher-created YouTube videos, BlendSpace (another online playlist tool), Prezi (a presentation tool), and in one case, a simple screenshot. Students are also invited to text the library with their questions in Google Voice, which provides teachers with additional data to inform future instruction.

    Personal Goal-Setting: Naviance

    In Bridgeport, Connecticut, Diane Tung, Director of Instructional Technology and Student Assessment for the Diocese of Bridgeport, reports that Naviance is being piloted at the middle school level for student surveys and to help students write SMART goals. Naviance offers tools like the Gallup StrengthsExplorer that let students identify their strengths and talents, such as achieving, caring, competing, confidence, and relating, among others. Naviance helps match those students with college and career options, and it also offers strategies for applying them not only to school, but also to a future career and life.

    Personal Archiving, Prioritizing, and FIltering: e-Portfolios in Google Sites and Digication

    A crucial aspect of student success planning is teaching students to archive their work electronically so it can follow them as they move from school to school or change districts. At Nathan Hale High School in Moodus, Connecticut, Deborah Olsen-MacDonald, business education and finance technology teacher, teaches a class called Information Technology, primarily for freshmen. Our BIG P.A. is a project they created using Google Sites where each student creates a personal Web site to be used for collecting schoolwork, listing personal interests and hobbies, showing extracurricular activities, and reflecting on their growth over time and their work to fulfill the district’s learning expectations. Students continually add to the portfolio over the course of their high school careers. Then, when they become seniors, they take a course called “Senior Project” in which they use their portfolios to demonstrate their readiness to earn a high school diploma by showing their learning and growth over time.

    Accountability and Self-Monitoring: RubiStar and iRubrics

    Today’s students expect a rubric for each assignment and they know how to use them. A skill that doesn’t appear on a given rubric is, by default, not a skill worth worrying about. As such, teachers should focus on creating rubrics that assess not only content, grammar, usage, and mechanics, but will also explicitly assess soft skills. You can write your own or go to Web sites like RubiStar or iRubric (accessible through Google Apps for Education) to see how others assess these skills. Rubrics on these sites can be used as is or modified to suit your needs. You can also create and add your own rubrics to the shared database.

    Across our nation, state departments of education are creating new policies that recognize the importance of soft skills. In Connecticut, for example, students in grades 6-12 are required to file a personal student success plan made up of goals in social, emotional, physical, and academic growth.

    See the article online: http://www.techlearning.com/features/0039/tech-tools-for-assessing-the-%E2%80%9Csoft-skills/54730

  • March: National Women’s History Month 2014

    The theme for National Women’s History Month this year is: Celebrating Women of Character, Courage and Commitment.  NASA is spotlighting women in STEM careers and has asked local clubs to highlight this locally.

    Several events are planned in and around Bozeman.  The bookclub selection and children’s storytime for the Bozeman Public Library this month have been chosen with this theme in mind.  A talk from SMAS will be given at ParkHaven on Tuesday March 11th.   The library’s Family Science night on Tuesday March 18th is being put on by the Bozeman High School Astronomy Club with several of the girls from the club conducting the activities.  On Friday March 28th, SMAS is having Dr. Sarah Jaeggli give an update on the IRIS mission for the winter lecture series to close out the month of activities.

  • Astronomy Day – April 5th

    Astronomy and Aerospace Day scheduled in Bozeman for April 5th

    A free day of astronomy- and aerospace-related events occurs in Bozeman on Saturday, April 5.

    BOZEMAN — A free afternoon of astronomy- and aerospace-related events for kids and adults will be held in Bozeman on Saturday, April 5, including talks by two Montana State University alumni who now work in space science and engineering: one as a systems engineer for Google[x] and another who is director of the world-famous Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

    The event takes place at the Museum of the Rockies from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and all Astronomy and Aerospace Day 2014 activities are included that afternoon with museum admission. Kids under age 17 and students with a valid college ID have free admission that day.

    Exhibits in the main lobby will feature activities, information and give-aways from NASA missions and MSU researchers. Kids’ activities will take place throughout the afternoon. The planetarium show is Flight Adventures.

    Angela Des Jardins, director of Montana Space Grant Consortium, will begin the afternoon presentations at 1 p.m. in the Hager Auditorium.

    Former Curiosity Rover mobility engineer Jaime Waydo speaks at 1:10 pm. Waydo, an MSU alumnus, is currently a systems engineer on the chauffeur self-driving car program.

    At 3 p.m., MSU alumnus Michelle Larson, who is now president and CEO of the Adler Planetarium, presents “Cosmic Wonder: The only thing bigger than the Universe is human curiosity.” Her presentation will take place in the Museum of the Rockies’ Taylor Planetarium.

    An autograph session with both Larson and Waydo takes place from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. in the Hager Auditorium.

    Astronomy and Aerospace Day is sponsored by the Museum of the Rockies, Montana Space Grant Consortium, Monforton School Science and Gifted Programs, Space Public Outreach Team, Southwest Montana Astronomical Society, and MSU’s Extended University and College of Letters & Sciences.

    For more information visit http://eu.montana.edu/AstronomyDay/

  • Elections results

    Our February SMAS meeting was cancelled due to weather.  This weather system was something else.  University of Montana closed, first weather related closure in 22 years. Many of the highways in western Montana were closed due to blizzard conditions and drifting snow.  Local roads were closed except for essential travel only.

    Our speaker Dr. Nate McCrady, from the University of Montana, will reschedule his talk and come in the next few months.  We will post here and send out emails to our list.  If you are not on our list and want to be, send us an email.  Not knowing if the word got out about the cancellation, Chris and Lynn showed up at the Museum of the Rockies.  Eric gave a planetarium show to the dozen+ people who braved the weather.

    We have a new board for this coming year.  Thank you to our members who turned out to vote.

    Your 2014 SMAS Board: 
    President – Lynn Powers

    Vice President – Joe Witherspoon

    Secretary – Chris Roulson

    Treasurer – Gwen Witherspoon

    Members At Large: Joce Allen, Steve Bell, Duane Gregg

    Hospitality – Leslie Reardon

    Membership – Joce Allen

    Outreach – Joe Witherspoon

    Education – Lynn Powers

     

  • February Winter Lecture speaker

    Join us on Friday Februay 28th UPDATE!  DUE TO THE FORECASTED WEATHER, WE ARE CANCELLING THE FEBRUARY INSTALLMENT OF THE WINTER LECTURE SERIES.  WE WILL RESCHEDULE DR. MCCRADY’S LECTURE AND POST WHEN WE HAVE THE INFORMATION.

    for the next installment of the Southwest Montana Astronomical Society’s 2014 Winter Lecture Series.  7:00 p.m. at the Museum of the Rockies in the Hagar Auditorium.  Free and open to the public.

    TO BE RESCHEDULED – PLEASE CHECK BACK FOR UPDATED INFORMATION.

    Dr. Nate McCrady, Associate Professor, University of Montana Department of Physics and Astronomy:

    “Minerva: Big Science with Small Telescopes.”

    One of the most profound questions NASA poses is: Are we alone? To look for life, we look for planets around other stars with conditions suitable for sustaining life. Detailed spectroscopic follow-up studies of these exoplanets will enable us to determine if there are anomalous amounts of methane or oxygen imprinted in their atmospheric spectra, an indication of life residing on the planet’s surface. With our partner institutions Harvard, Penn State and Caltech, the University of Montana is building and operating Project Minerva, a dedicated observatory for detection of rocky, Earth-like exoplanets orbiting nearby stars.

     

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  • M82 Super Nova

    M 82 Super Nova 1/24/2014

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Taken by one of the SMAS club members on 1/24/2014, Super Nova in M 82.  This is a 3 minute exposure.  The super nova is not naked eye visible, but has been seen by telescopes as small as 4 inches.  Click here for more information on the M82 Super Nova.  This is a type Ia and is one of the closest observed super nova in several decades.  M82 is also known as the Cigar Galaxy and is found near the Big Dipper in Ursa Major by its companion galaxy M81.

  • Scott Alan Sandness (1956 – 2013)

    Scott Alan Sandness, 57, of Belgrade, passed away on Dec. 31, 2013. He was born Dec. 27, 1956 in Valley City, N.D. to Theodore (Ted) and Pauline (Polly) Sandness.

    Scott grew up on the family farm in the LaMoure, N.D. area. He graduated from LaMoure High School in 1975 and moved to Fargo, N.D., where he earned a degree in electronics from the community college. He also attended North Dakota State University before moving to Billings, Mont. where he did electronics repair and sound system installations. In 1986, Scott moved to Bozeman and attended Montana State University graduating in 1990 with a degree in electrical engineering. He worked as an electrical engineer for several years before his fascination with astronomy and star-gazing led to him opening a telescope store called Night Skies in Belgrade. Scott was a long-time member of the Southwest Montana Astronomical Society and helped many people get started in astronomy. He would get a big grin having people take their first look through a telescope and seeing the rings around Saturn. Not being afraid to try out different careers, Scott’s last job was as a sales person at Carquest in Belgrade which he greatly enjoyed.

    Scott’s life-long love of music was inspired by his mother. He was an award-winning trumpet player, sang in various choirs, and was part of a barber shop quartet called “A Half Ton of Harmony.” He loved 1970’s rock and roll music playing on his JBL speakers. Throughout the years, Scott enjoyed hiking, bicycling, and most of all he was an avid golfer and Minnesota Viking fan.

    Scott was a member of the Bozeman Church of Christ, where he enjoying singing, leading worship, and working the sound board for church services. His faith in God and the support of family and friends kept him enjoying life while going through his long battle with cancer. He had a tremendous influence for good in the lives of countless people.

    Scott married Rose Bishop in 1993. They lived in Belgrade and divorced a few years later. Scott was preceded in death by his parents, Pauline and Theodore Sandness, and his brother and sister, Peter and Vicki, who passed away shortly after birth.

    Memorial services will be held at the Bozeman Church of Christ on Monday, Jan. 6 at 2 p.m. Memorials in Scott’s name may be made to the Bozeman Church of Christ, 1825 W Kagy Blvd., Bozeman, MT 59715.

    Scott was also a long time member of SMAS, he will be missed.

     

  • Astronomy at the high school

    Posted: 

    GAIL SCHONTZLER, Chronicle Staff Writer

    Somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy, far, far away, baby stars are being born, and two Bozeman High School students have spent months working to uncover some of their mysteries.

    Hannah Cebulla and Maddie Kelly just returned from a trip funded by NASA to present their research at the American Astronomical Society’s January meeting in Washington, D.C.

    More than 3,000 scientists, professors, graduate students and college undergraduates attended – along with a handful of high school students.

    “It was fantastic,” said Kelly, 17, a senior. “They were really impressed with the work we were able to do at our age.”

    “For me it was real cool to see everybody’s hard work,” said Cebulla, a junior. “Everybody is so excited to see everybody’s research.”

    They were two of about a dozen high school students from Connecticut, Virginia, Chicago and Bozeman who collaborated in researching “Class O/I Protostars and Triggered Star Formation in NGC 281.”

    Basically that means they studied baby stars, the different ways stars form and whether those differences create any differences once they’re “adult” stars, the two students said.

    Lynn Powers, library secretary at Bozeman High’s Bridger Alternative Program and Astronomy Club adviser, said it’s exciting for students to be doing original research, “not knowing what they’re going to find,” instead of repeating experiments others have already done and the outcome is known.

    “It teaches students how to do science, do critical thinking, and take real live data and analyze it,” Powers said. “That’s amazing.”

    Astronomy has changed from the days of looking through telescopes with the naked eye. Today astronomers look at computer screens and analyze data, said Powers, an avid amateur astronomer and Southwest Montana Astronomical Society president.

    The Bozeman High students analyzed data from the Herschel telescope, named for the scientist who discovered invisible infrared radiation in 1800. The Herschel telescope has gathered thousands of hours of data that have been archived because NASA doesn’t have enough people to analyze everything. So the space agency has invited citizen-scientists to help out.

    The students looked at stars forming in clouds of swirling gas and dust in an area near Cassiopeia called NGC 281. It’s nicknamed the Pac-Man Nebula because its shape resembles the video game character.

    Last June the Bozeman students traveled to Caltech in California to learn how to do Python computer programming to analyze the Herschel data. They met the other high school students on their team, who continued to work together in the ensuing months using Skype and teleconferences.

    Powers said she hopes the Astronomy Club can keep working on the project in the coming year. The club will probably have to do some fundraising, she said, because NASA’s education and outreach money has been “zeroed out” of the federal budget.

    Kelly said she has always loved science and participating in the research conference “really drives your passion.” She plans to attend Montana State University and study astrophysics.

    Cebulla said she first became interested in astronomy on family camping trips, when she’d look up at the stars and think they were “the coolest thing ever.” She plans to attend college and study astrophysics or astrobiology.

    Powers said she and the students enjoyed visiting the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, but the coolest moment of the trip for her was meeting Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium and a host of NOVA science shows. She got his autograph.

  • Winter Lecture Series

    We are starting our Winter Lecture Series early this year.  We are adding December 6th, with a short club meeting to follow.

    All lectures are held at the Musuem of the Rockies at the Hagar auditorium, start time 7:00 p.m., are free and open to the public.

    December 6, 2013 – Dr. Robert Szilagy from MSU, Associate Professor Chemistry and Biochemistry: “A chemist’s perspective on the Hadean and its relevance to chemical origin of life.”

     The presentation will merge our scientific results on the investigation of various physical chemistry scenarios that could have contributed to the formation of complex organic molecules and the broader context of chemical origin of life. These results were obtained by a team of surface scientists, geochemists, physical chemists, spectroscopists, synthetic inorganic chemists, and theoreticians brought together by the NASA Astrobiology Institute. The breadth of scientific expertise covered by our team well represents the much needed interdisciplinary approach of this work. The presentation will attempt to place the most productive time of chemical evolution within time boundaries using data from geological record and planetology. An exciting future direction for research will be introduced for closing which have a chance to merge at least two leading theories in origin of life research with a possibility of providing a plausible scenario for catalytic conversion of small molecules to biologically relevant large molecules.

    January 31, 2014 – Dr. Neil Cornish from MSU Physics Department: “Black Hole Hunting with Pulsar Timing Arrays.”

    In a unique mariage of radio and gravitational wave astronomy, the regular radio pulses from rapidly rotating Neutron stars (Pulsars) are being used to search for gravitational waves. In the US, the NANOGrav collaboration uses the Green Bank and Arecibo radio telescopes to find an monitor dozens of radio pulsars, and together with partners in Europe and Australia, we form the International Pulsar Timing Array: a galactic scale gravitational wave detector designed to detect signals from black holes billions of times more massive than our Sun. The race is now on to make the first direct detection of gravitational waves – will it be by Pulsar Timing or by the LIGO/Virgo laser interferometers?

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    February 28, 2014 – Dr. Nate McCrady, Associate Professor, University of Montana Department of Physics and Astronomy: “Minerva: Big Science with Small Telescopes.”
    One of the most profound questions NASA poses is: Are we alone? To look for life, we look for planets around other stars with conditions suitable for sustaining life. Detailed spectroscopic follow-up studies of these exoplanets will enable us to determine if there are anomalous amounts of methane or oxygen imprinted in their atmospheric spectra, an indication of life residing on the planet’s surface. With our partner institutions Harvard, Penn State and Caltech, the University of Montana is building and operating Project Minerva, a dedicated observatory for detection of rocky, Earth-like exoplanets orbiting nearby stars.
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    March 28, 2014 – Dr. Sarah Jaeggli from MSU, Solar Physics Postdoctoral Researcher: “IRIS mission update.”
    The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) is a new mission to look at the Sun which was launched June 27, 2013.  IRIS was designed to look at a very mysterious region above the Sun’s visible surface where the very hot gas of the corona (1 million degrees Celsius) meets the very cool gas of the chromosphere (5000 degrees Celsius).  The mystery lies in how the Sun maintains the chromosphere at such a cool temperature while transferring energy through it into the hot corona.  The MSU solar physics group is part of the international team responsible for building  the instrument, operating it, and analyzing the images it sends back to Earth.  In this lecture I’ll give an update on the IRIS mission and talk  about the new science that is being done here at MSU.
  • Around the sun with ISON: Amateur astronomer tracks comet, asteroids

    From the Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Sunday November 10, 2013 by LAURA LUNDQUIST, Chronicle Staff Writer

    TWIN BRIDGES – Only in darkness can you see the stars. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those words to give people hope to stave off the darkness. But amateur astronomers need no encouragement – they live for the darkness that allows them to see the jewels of the night sky. And in times like these, astronomer Joe Witherspoon might add a corollary: Only in darkness and over time can you see a comet. Comets – really bright comets – can still cause a stir even though fewer people can now see the night sky because of city lights. Some spectacular comets have even landed in popular culture. Halley’s comet swings past the Earth every 75 years. Mark Twain bragged that he was born in one of those years, 1835, and he died the day after the comet returned in 1910. In 1997, Comet Hale-Bopp lingered bright in the northern sky, attracting the attention of a Los Angeles cult. Cult members committed mass suicide, believing they could reach an alien spacecraft that was supposed to be following the comet. But most comets pass by Earth unseen. Fifteen comets are now passing through the solar system, but they’re too small or dim to be seen with the naked eye. But one, ISON, is getting brighter by the day and has many astronomers excited. A comet is a conglomeration of rock and ice that produces one or more tails of vapor and gas as it nears the heat of the sun. One of the intriguing things about ISON is its green color, produced by the release of cyanogen gas and carbon. Six months ago, some were even calling it “the comet of the century.” As it’s gotten closer, however, its behavior hasn’t quite matched some of the predictions. So some astronomers are backing off that claim. But they’re still hoping it will be as bright as predicted if it survives its trip around the sun. “(Professional astronomers) are kind of fudging now. We’re still waiting to see what happens,” Witherspoon said. “One constant thing about a comet: It’s unpredictable. You don’t know how much ice is on this thing, so how bright is it going to get?” After Nov. 17, Comet ISON — named after the Russian organization that spotted it — is expected to be bright enough to be seen by the naked eye. But as it travels toward the sun, it will sink lower in the eastern sky and be visible only before dawn. It will slingshot around the sun on Thanksgiving Day and pass closest to the Earth on Christmas Day before leaving the solar system. “They had wanted all the clubs to do something on Thanksgiving. They wanted to call it the Thanksgiving Day comet and get everyone out,” said Lynn Powers, president of the Southwest Montana Astronomical Society in Bozeman. “But they knew it would be so difficult for families to give up Thanksgiving.” Science writer David Dickinsen said the first week of December, after the comet passes the sun, would be the best week for viewing the comet at its brightest when it will be visible at dusk. In the early morning hours of the past month, Witherspoon has sat vigil at his computer in a hut outside his home southeast of Twin Bridges. Often he stays up all night, peering into the universe only to turn his focus on ISON at about 3 a.m.

    Nearby sits an almost identical hut he built with a special feature: a pair of rails that allows the roof to be slid aside to expose two large telescopes. After retiring three years ago, Witherspoon and his wife traded the noise and lights of Tacoma, Wash., for silence and sagebrush of the Ruby River Valley. Many people covet the area’s mountain scenery or the fishing, but for Witherspoon, it’s his high-tech huts and the unbroken sky above them that make it his dream home. The low profile of the Highland Mountains is barely noticeable next to the wide Beaverhead River Valley spreading southwest from Witherspoon’s vantage point. Only the foothills of the Tobacco Root Mountains behind his house mar a prairie expanse of sky. But more important than a lack of physical obstacles is the lack of artificial light. That’s really what attracted Witherspoon to Twin Bridges. “In Tacoma, you often had clouds, and when you didn’t, you had so much light pollution, you couldn’t see anything that was really dim,” Witherspoon said. “If you look at the picture of the U.S. at night, the dark spots are where you don’t have lights. There’s one in Arizona, one in Wyoming and one here. We came here.” Obsessed with astronomy since childhood, Witherspoon finally invested in his first advanced telescope 20 years ago after retiring from the U.S. Army. Since then, he’s had a lot of time to design his pet project, the most equipped private observatory in Montana. Dubbed the Cottontail Observatory, Witherspoon’s 14-inch diameter telescope and his 6-inch diameter solar telescope have moveable mounts and cameras that he can run remotely. The two telescopes sit on concrete pillars sunk 6 feet into the ground and passing through the floor so the telescopes don’t vibrate when people walk inside the hut. Witherspoon engineered everything, including the sliding roof setup, which a few astronomers around Bozeman have copied, Powers said. From the warmth of his computer hut, Witherspoon can command the movements of the telescopes. He can also trigger a camera on the telescope to take photographs with timed exposures, which are necessary to pick up very dim objects, such as incoming comets. At regular intervals, Witherspoon photographs specific sectors of sky. Using software, he can line the photographs up to see if any points appear to shift over time, indicating a possible comet or asteroid. While working on his images, Witherspoon sometimes uses Skype to talk to other sleep-deprived astronomers across the nation and compare findings. So it’s not surprising that Witherspoon and an army of amateur astronomers have been recruited to focus on areas of the solar system where professional astronomers don’t have the time to look. “They’re finally realizing that we’re in a shooting gallery. These asteroids can pop on us at any time,” Witherspoon said. “Most of these near-Earth asteroids are small, but every once in a while you see one that’s 4 kilometers. It’s shaky that they come in that close.” In February, a large asteroid exploded in the skies over Russia. It surprised astronomers because, like a sneaky fighter pilot, it came from the direction of the sun so no one saw it. But three papers on the Russian asteroid published this week suggest that the risk of asteroid impacts is 10 times greater than previously thought and similarly large asteroids could penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere roughly every 25 years. Since the Earth’s surface is mostly water, the asteroids don’t present much danger. Still, Witherspoon could have a busy retirement spent mostly in the dark. But for at least the next two months, Comet ISON will brighten his nights.

    Read more at: http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/news/sunday/article_b28c352c-48d7-11e3-a33a-001a4bcf887a.html