The observatory uses its planetarium to teach lunar, stellar and planetary motion, constellations, and mythology.
Halfway between Jackson and Tupelo and just off the Natchez Trace, sits one of the largest collections of powerful telescopes in the Southeast.
The spot used to be a cow pasture.
Today, the cows are gone, and the public has access to telescopes that allow them to eye planets, the moon, stars, and galaxies close up and clear.
During a recent Saturday in October, members of a Florence-based Boy Scout troop and Cub Scout pack crowded the planetarium at the Rainwater Observatory at French Camp Academy to watch a presentation by Edwin Faughn, the observatory’s director.
The observatory, an educational outreach support ministry of French Camp Academy, uses its planetarium to teach lunar, stellar and planetary motion, constellations, and mythology.
Just after the scouts and some of their parents sat in their seats, a dark, crimson light illuminated around them before it slowly transformed into complete pitch black.
Faughn sat in the middle of the chairs that surround the dome-shaped theater and asked everyone to be quiet.
Before long, the scouts looked up at the Big Dipper after Faughn asked them if they could spot the constellation.
Later in the evening, when the sky over French Camp grew dark, the scouts manned the telescopes to look at the real thing.
Although the 35 or so telescopes at The Rainwater Observatory are the big draw, visitors also have access to the planetarium, indoor exhibits including a meteorite collection, collections of rocks and minerals, asteroid models, and a space science art exhibit.
Different workshops and programs are held throughout the year including a free monthly program sponsored by the 4-County Foundation every second Friday of the month at 7 p.m. The event includes a main astronomy related presentation, a tour through the exhibits and telescope observing weather permitting.
The observatory is powered by 4-County Electric.
“4-County believes in helping the communities it serves,” said 4-County CEO Brian Clark. “We can make a difference in our communities through the 4-County Foundation. Organizations like the French Camp Observatory can reap the benefits of our members’ generosity through the Foundation. This is what the Foundation is all about.”
Observatory funding is generated through fees collected for programming, donations from individuals, and grants from foundations and corporations.
During the spring, the annual Midsouth Stargaze and Astronomy Conference attracts amateur and professional astronomers from around the country.
“It is an exciting time of fun, fellowship, telescope observing, astrophotography and fascinating presentations by amateur and professional astronomers,” Faughn said.
Faughn said he is truly amazed at the diversity of people that visit the observatory each year from around the world.
“We had a group here one time with 13 countries represented in a single audience here in central Mississippi. Professional research astronomers have frequently visited Rainwater such as, Dr. Michael A’Hearn, principal investigator for NASA’s Deep Impact comet mission; galaxy researcher Dr. William Keel from the University of Alabama; Dr. Meagan Urrey, a black hole researcher and dean of the astrophysics department at Yale University,” Faughn said.
The origins of Rainwater were an outgrowth of the desire to appreciate that “the Heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1), Faughn said.
In the summer of 1985, a 16-inch reflector telescope was offered to the Jackson Astronomical Association based in the state capital. At the time, they did not have the room or money for it. So, a member of the association asked Stuart Irby, Jr., French Camp Academy’s board chairman at the time, if the school would be interested in it. Jim Hill, a French Camp Academy teacher, was an amateur astronomer and became excited about the project.
“Hill, assisted by teachers Terry Beutin and Terry Roberts, students Ed Hill and Jerry Thompson, and alumnus Steve Garcia, armed themselves with saws and hammers and caravanned to claim the prize. In addition to the telescope, they brought back a 10’x10’ building with a roll-off roof, along with many books and accessories,” Faughn said.
The building was placed atop of an open ridge on French Camp Academy’s Rainwater farm property about a mile east of the main campus on Highway 413. Far from ambient city lights, the site was an excellent place for an observatory.
Since that time, telescopes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars have been donated to the observatory, Faughn said.
Faughn, 58, has been the director of the observatory since 2009.
An Arkansas-native, Faughn is a space science artist and illustrator as well as a lecturer. His original artwork has also been featured in and on the covers of leading international space science magazines, books, exhibitions, and planetariums.
Before taking over at Rainwater, Faughn worked for nearly 20 years as artist-photographer for the Sharpe Planetarium in Memphis where he produced original traditional media and digital artwork, cartoon characters and animation for numerous space science, laser light and children’s planetarium productions.
Faughn said his interest in astronomy began at the age of 8 after his parents purchased a small reflector telescope. He said observing the lunar craters and mountains for the first time was a life changing experience.
“I remember a recurring childhood dream of walking outside in the twilight just before dawn and seeing the planets Jupiter and Saturn looming above the surrounding homes at nearly 20 times the diameter of a full moon. Spectacular galaxies and nebulae would also be strewn throughout the starry night sky,” Faughn said.
Faughn said stargazing has been a strong motivating interest in his life.
When we look up at the stars at night, we are not just seeing points of light but physical places in the universe. Astronomers have now confirmed over 5,000 other planets orbiting other stars and that number will be in the trillions in years to come. Our minds cannot even begin to fathom the unimaginably vast and beautiful universe we live in. We often take these things for granted and don’t realize we are a part of something far greater than any one of us can even begin to comprehend! The fact that we even exist on this tiny Earth is humbling.
For More Info
- Visit the Rainwater Observatory at French Camp Academy website
- Email Rainwater Observatory
- (662) 547-7283