When the recession put an end to the Phoenix Day Spa in Ashland, owner Jessica Vineyard turned to her lifelong passion — astronomy — to make a living.
Now she's charted a new course as a wandering star wizard, "Ms. Galaxy."
The Talent resident brings her two fat Dobsonian reflector telescopes, a smaller refractor and star charts to classes, parties and other gatherings to help educate people about the heavens.
"I want to share the wonders of the night sky in fun, easy and entertaining ways," says Vineyard, who founded Southern Oregon Skywatchers when she arrived in the Rogue Valley 25 years ago.
She first practiced her craft locally by writing a star column and co-hosting the weekly "Milky Way Starlight Theater" on Jefferson Public Radio in the 1990s.
Vineyard says she gets special delight out of opening the eyes and minds of small schoolchildren, who readily take to the vast wonders of space and aren't afraid to ask dumb questions.
But adults are avid learners, too, she says, adding many people have a telescope gathering dust in the garage simply because they don't know how to use it — a problem she helps resolve in her presentations.
She introduces people to the moon, planets and 110 Messier objects (named for 19th-century French astronomer Charles Messier, who identified 110 permanent objects in the heavens).
"I guess my favorite is M51, the Whirlpool galaxy, a beautiful face-on galaxy which, only in June, gave birth to a supernova," Vineyard says. "That's when a single star explodes and is brighter than its entire galaxy. We saw it at the Golden State Star Party near Alturas. They're always discovered by amateurs. That's who searches for them."
That supernova actually exploded 35 million years ago, but its light is only now reaching us.
Aided by a thick star-chart book and red-light flashlight, Vineyard locates various near-space objects and educates people about them. But her personal passion is probing into deep space, learning to find the more faint and distant features of the universe to share with others.
Vineyard eschews computer-driven telescopics (which zap you right to the point) and prefers to guide her Dobsonian telescope by hand.
Probing the unimaginably vast depths of interstellar space, Vineyard says, "You can feel one of two ways — either very insignificant or completely unique. I choose the latter. I'm filled with absolute awe. If I get out of my car at night, you will never see me not look up into the sky. It draws me with its incredible mystery and vastness. And the fact that it's so unknown."
Vineyard, who has a degree in chemistry from Southern Oregon University, will be one of the presenters over Labor Day weekend at the annual Oregon Star Party in the Ochoco Mountains near Prineville. Her topic is the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram, which charts the luminosity, age, temperature, diameter and mass of stars. She also has a website with information about the stars and her business, www.astronomyforeveryone.com. Her email is MsGalaxy@AstronomyForEveryone.com.
"I'm involved with educating the community about science and astronomy, and it matters to me because we've lost our connection with science and we have to get back on track," she says. "It's important to make science accessible to everyone.
"When I look at a star through the telescope, I'm very aware that this tiny speck of light has traveled 30 million light years and the first thing it's hitting is my eyeball."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.