Star studies in Summit County |

Star studies in Summit County

Leslie Brefeld
Special to the Daily

BRECKENRIDGE – The mysteries of our universe are unraveling. In the last two decades, satellites that can observe space from outside of our atmosphere – air that distorts the view – along with the advancement of electronic sensors and computers, have changed the access lines into space, according to astrophysicist John Bally. “Humanity will do for the universe what Columbus did for geography,” the University of Colorado-Boulder professor said. “We’re the first to see the universe as it really is.”Bally and his wife, Kim Ruhland, have a second home on Bald Mountain (their first is in Golden), with an observatory built into the roof of the garage. From his vantage point -Bald Mountain is ideal for a telescope because of its calm and clear air – Bally views the cosmos and takes photographic images with his Celestron telescope.The Orion Nebula was observable last Saturday night at the Breckenridge observatory, and the image seen through the telescope brings up an astounding reality about the research Bally is doing.Since the speed of light is finite, the light that carried the image that I saw – a greenish cloud located 1,500 light years away – began its journey when the Roman Empire fell.

“With the very distant universe – it’s ancient light – and you’re literally looking back in time,” he said. The history of 99 percent of the universe is visible, including radiation at microwave wavelengths from the Big Bang.”If you look at it with the right physics and understanding … you are looking at our origins,” Bally said.The universe has been around for more than 13 billion years, and Bally believes that research in the next 30 to 40 years will map out the cosmos.”We have the capacity to cover everything sensitive enough, that with a dedicated effort, we’ll be able to detect every galaxy as big as ours to the edge of the visible universe,” he said.

Bally made his way to Boulder in 1991 the long way, he says jokingly, through the South Pole to help set up the first permanent astronomic observatory in Antarctica. Before that he worked for AT&T Laboratories in New Jersey.His research focus is on young stars and how planetary systems form; the clear images taken by modern cameras inspired Bally and colleague Bo Reipurth to write a book about them.”The Birth of Stars and Planets” was published by the Cambridge University Press and is being pursued for use as a textbook, although Bally didn’t design it that way. He said he made it a point not to use any formulas in the book.”Always avoid equations,” he said, reflecting on his teaching as well as the book material.Bally teaches a class in astrobiology at CU, which explores the possibility of extraterrestrial life. The upper-level class combines many scientific disciplines, including astrophysics, astronomy, geology, paleontology, biology and bio-chemistry.”All these scientific fields connect in some deep ways,” he said.Bally is also on the science advisory committee of the ALMA project, or Atacama Large Millimeter Array, a research site being built in Chile with 64 antennae. Although the funding is there for this project, he said the United States is spending about 4 percent less on research than it did in the 1960s.

“Science is the engine that drives the economy,” he said.He noted Colorado could be a big part of the developing understanding of the universe in the near future. The Henderson Mine in Empire is a possible site for a deep underground physics lab.Professor Bally will be at Weber’s in Breckenridge Saturday from 5-7 p.m. signing copies of “The Birth of Stars and Planets.”

Leslie Brefeld can be reached at (970) 668-4626 or

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