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A Midwinter Night's Dream

The Brightest Stars of the Year are on Display Right Now. A Local Astronomy Expert Explains Why the Valley is a Prime Locale for Winter Stargazing

Look up. Above the horizon, past the invisible gaseous molecules of Earth’s atmosphere, and into the far beyond. There it is: our night sky. And not just any night sky, but the particularly dazzling one of January. Do the stars look brighter than usual? Indeed, they are. During winter we are positioned to peer away from the hazy center of the Milky Way, and instead toward the darker outskirts of our home galaxy. The sky appears sharper and more crystalline, which means that right now is the perfect time to try your hand at stargazing. 

Astronomy expert and Glenwood Springs resident Bryan White would be the first to tell you to bundle up, grab a thermos, and head outside to feast your eyes tonight. As the owner of Star Party LLC, he hosts gatherings across the valley where attendees can glimpse all manner of sky treasures (think stars, yes, but also nebulae, moons, planets, galaxies, and more) through his four impressive telescopes. “Enthusiastic” seems too dull a word to describe White’s love of astronomy; to listen to him speak on the subject is like hearing a gospel of the stars.

“Various sources keep telling me that there’s more interest in astronomy these days,” he says. “But I’m not always sure of that. I have never understood why we don’t learn more about it growing up in school. What could be more fascinating? It’s our universe. I want to help other people learn more about it.”

The Michigan native has been independently studying the night sky for some six decades, ever since he was a young child, awestruck by the jeweled heavens above—where else?—Colorado. 

“My father and grandfather both worked for Ford Motor Company, so my family was based in the Detroit area. With all the light pollution in the city, there were maybe two bright stars in the sky—and those were probably planets,” White recalls. “But we had relatives out here in South Park, and we would visit them when I was a kid. I will never forget looking up and really seeing the night sky for the first time when we were camping one night. That experience is probably what first sparked my interest in astronomy.”

Not long after that star-crossed excursion to the mountains, another celestial sighting back home in Michigan firmly established what would become White’s lifelong passion for the sky. It was a warm summer night in 1957 at his family’s small farm in Ortonville, when six-year-old White stepped outside to gaze at the western horizon. 

“I saw something unusual,” he remembers. “I asked my father, and he was kind of impressed that I spotted this thing because I was so young.” Although it hadn’t been named yet, what White saw that night was the brilliant non-periodic Comet Mrkos appearing suddenly in the sky.

“From then on my father bought me books to learn about stars, constellations, and other astronomical entities,” White says. “And I haven’t stopped learning since.”

Although he pursued business at the University of Michigan as a young man, the budding starwatcher excelled in the astronomy courses he took as electives. His career in banking led him to southern Florida, where he continued to develop his knowledge and love of the night sky. When Halley’s Comet passed by in 1986, White decided to up the ante and invest in his first telescope: a Celestron 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain. This was a pivotal moment in his life.

“It’s one thing to study, and another thing to truly observe,” he says. “Almost like looking at a photo of the Grand Canyon versus standing in person on the South Rim. That’s sort of how I equate what a telescope can do, to connect the observer to the universe.” He went on to acquire three more high-powered telescopes in subsequent years, including a computer-controlled 22-inch model by Obsession Telescopes which allows viewers to see galaxies 500 million light years away.

His love of the skies over Colorado came full circle in 2000, when White relocated to Denver. He worked at the Museum of Nature & Science as head of telescopes before moving further west and settling in Glenwood Springs about seven years ago. Stargazing in the Roaring Fork Valley, he says, is fantastic—and he devotes some 10 or so nights per month to night sky observation here. 

“What’s so interesting about our valley is that you can get away from the lights of towns so easily,” White notes. “Getting a great view is about seeking out a very dark location, which is not difficult here, and getting up out of the valleys, which prohibit the horizon. Anywhere with a dark, wide open vista is what you want: Missouri Heights or Independence Pass, for example.”

Our local skies possess two of the three key factors for great stargazing: low light pollution and top-notch transparency.

“Transparency means the amount of atmosphere you’re looking through. The low humidity here contributes a great deal to this,” White says. He adds that the third important condition for watching the sky, called Seeing, is a bit trickier in the mountains. “Seeing essentially denotes the stability of the atmosphere in a given location. Our atmosphere here at altitude can be very turbulent, and this affects how much detail can be observed on certain nights.”

White’s star parties, which he has hosted for private and public groups of all sizes from Aspen to Glenwood, begin with a breakdown of sky conditions and astronomy basics. Every group receives a brief introductory lesson and a menu of celestial objects to be observed that night through White’s telescopes. Then, he adjusts the instruments continually throughout the event as participants step up to view brilliant sky phenomena, ask questions, and learn. White is one of only a handful of experts to offer this kind of experience in the U.S.

“The universe is ever-expanding and eternal,” White says. “There are billions of stars we can observe, and billions more beyond that we can only dream about. That’s the beauty of astronomy—you never run out of something to see.”  

Although his large public star parties like the ones he’s held with the Aspen Science Center have been paused during the pandemic, White has continued to offer small, safe gatherings for families at their homes or at dark sites around the valley. He also hopes to broaden the scope of his educational work through partnerships with nonprofit organizations and schools in the near future, as he believes strongly that astronomy is something we should all have far more access to. 

“Many people have told me that observing the stars up-close is a powerful life experience they’ll never forget,” White says. “That makes me very happy. Because I feel the same way.”



OBSERVATION TIPS

  • Pick a clear night to stargaze during the new or waxing/waning crescent moon, when the sky is darkest. Start any time an hour after sunset, and note that the atmosphere becomes steadier by 10 or 11 p.m.

  • Try an app like Sky Safari, Star Tracker, Skyview, or Google Sky to help you identify constellations, planets, and prominent stars.

  • Brush up on basic astronomy and history of human interaction with the night sky. Having some context enriches your stargazing experience exponentially. 


 

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE JANUARY SKY

  • Planets: Mars, visible with the naked eye in Aries at sunset; Uranus, also in Aries and easier viewed with binoculars; Neptune, farther west in Aquarius and viewable by telescope.

  • Deep Sky Objects: Orion Nebula, located just below Orion’s three famous “belt” stars; Pleiades, an open star cluster in Taurus famously known as the Seven Sisters, that’s terrific with binoculars; Andromeda Galaxy, our sister galaxy located 2.5 million light years away, is visible straight up at sunset.

  • Bright Stars: Betelgeuse, the “shoulder” star of Orion; Sirius, or the “Dog Star,” is the brightest star in the sky; Castor, one of the Gemini “twin” stars, best viewed through a telescope.

LEARN MORE

  • StarPartyLLC.com

  • 970.987.7306

  • StarPartyLLC@gmail.com

 

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