Eyes on the skies

By Linda Lou - San Diego Union Tribune
August 1st, 2008

A stargazing event staged just outside Julian today through Sunday should dazzle anyone who hasn't seen the night sky through a powerful telescope, its organizers say.

Galaxies millions of light-years away - one light-year is 5.88 trillion miles - will be visible, as will globular clusters, balls of hundres of thousands of stars.

But the most spectacular sight will be a prime viewing of Jupiter and its Galilean moons, said Mike Leigh, who helped organize the first Julian Starfest. The four moons are among Jupiter's largest and are named after astronomer Galileo Galilei, who discovered them.

Julian, at an elevation of about 4,200 feet, has good conditions for stargazing, with dark skies that are usually clear, Leigh said.

Julian Starfest will have lectures, exhibits of telescopes made by major manufacturers such as Meade Instruments, Celestron and Vixen, and a swap meet of used equipment on Sunday. From 8 to 11 p.m. tomorrow, experts will give free "sky tours" for the public by using about a dozen telescopes. During the day, there will be a demonstration of how to grind glass disks to make the primary mirrors used in telescopes.

Sponsors include the Julian Merchants Association and the Julian Chamber of Commerce.

The idea, Leigh said, came from a chat with two friends, Scott Baker and Chuck Kimball, also astronomy aficionados. Kimball, 69, said he is perpetually fascinated by "what's out there."

The three men want Starfest to become an annual event, Leigh said. This year's profits will be used to build a small observatory for the Julian Union High School District, he said, and they hope to pay for more observatories in local school districts with future Starfests.

A self-taught astronomer, Leigh said the event is intended for anyone who is interested in seeing a view of the skies invisible to the naked eye. "Come out and learn more about the universe you live in," he said. "You'll leave a different person."

Leigh, 53, said his fascination with astronomy began at age 8, when his father gave him a small telescope. "I was able to find Saturn by myself at that age," he said.

After that, he wanted to read as much as he could about the subject, even though he wasn't fond of reading.

In college, Leigh studied astronomy, but not as his major. He has had varied careers, and once worked as a technical representative for Meade Instruments, answering questions about astronomy and telescopes. Thirteen years ago, he decided to combine his business background with his love of the heavens.

Leigh and his wife, Caroline, opened Observer's Inn in Julian, where guests can look through three research-grade telescopes and two of lesser quality in the inn's observatory.