"The biggest thing that amazes me is just the size and the scope of the sky. Space is mind-boggling and the best way to conceptualize its vastness is to put it into terms you can visualize"
~ Joe Witherspoon
In 2010 Joe and Gwen Witherspoon moved from Washington to Montana to build the observatory of their dreams. Light pollution maps helped them discover their ideal star-gazing environment. The 83-acre spread nestled in the Tobacco Root Mountains offers a perfect view of the night sky.
Cottontail rabbits hopped in and around the building during construction as if appraising it and giving their approval. Thus, Cottontail Observatory was born, where Joe and Gwen pursue their passion for studying and teaching astronomy.
Astronomy has informed Joe’s entire life starting from the 4th grade. That year, he noticed an orange glow behind a farmer's barn down the street from his home in Wheatland, WY. Thinking it was a fire, he set out to see if he could offer any help. As he got closer, he realized the glow was emanating from the rising moon behind the barn. "Maybe I oughta learn something about this stuff," he thought to himself and he has been captivated ever since.
Joe took it upon himself to study constellations, becoming efficient in using the North Star, Polaris, for navigation. In 1959, Joe was in the Army participating in a night navigation course. He was tasked to use a compass and count his steps to find his way in the dark. “I didn’t have to count steps or anything. I just walked,” Joe said. He completed his tasks so quickly that the instructors mistakenly accused him of cheating.
After getting out of the army, Joe still did not have a telescope. By this time he was married to Gwen, who is very knowledgeable about constellation narratives. The Witherspoon's moved to Tacoma, WA and Joe joined an astronomy club where he eventually got his first, six-inch telescope in 1991.
Since then, he has updated his collection, which includes a 20-inch, 10-inch, 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). He uses his 15-inch computerized telescope for astrophotography (taking pictures of space) and conducting research at his observatory. He also hosts Star Parties, Public Nights, and Kids' Programs.