Jim Waltman looks through a tub of filters in preparation for sundown.
Jim Waltman looks through a tub of filters in preparation for sundown.
Located on 140 acres of pure country in Flora, Jim Waltman keeps his eyes on the skies from his private observatory. Finding his place among the stars is both his hobby and passion. The beauty of all the nebulas, galaxies, and star clusters keeps him intrigued and coming back for more.

His fascination with astronomy began in 1986 when he bought a telescope to view Halley's Comet, but much to his confusion couldn't find anything. So, he decided it was time to get a little help from an old friend.

"I couldn't find anything so I called the planetarium for some help and when I called them they gave me the phone number of the local astronomy club. The president at the time happened to be an old friend of mine. So we renewed our friendship by sharing our interest in astronomy ever since. Now that I've retired it's become a big hobby/passion of mine," Waltman said.

For a long time after that, Waltman loved getting together with his fellow stargazers to find objects they had put on a challenge list. They enjoyed trying to locate more obscure objects in the sky, but as he grew older he noticed his tastes began to change. He started focusing on the brighter objects in space - not stars, but nebulas, galaxies and star clusters rather.

"There's something we have called a Messier List, created by Charles Messier. He produced a list of 109 objects that are pretty bright and can be seen with binoculars, and I have a lot of fun looking at those," he said.

"There's stuff going on all the time," he continued. "On any given night you can see at least two or three comets. There's galaxies mating with other galaxies. There's so much going on up there that there is always something to look at and always something new.

"You can see it all, asteroids, miscellaneous space objects that you can track if you want to and keep up with some of those," he said.

As far as a hobby goes, Waltman feels that it is one of the most serene things that you can partake in. There are various aspects of astronomy and one form that has become popular over the years is astrophotography.

"I don't do that myself but a lot of people who do that make some really beautiful pictures. As far as a hobby it's the most serene thing that you can have mainly from the beauty that comes from it - you really see some beautiful things," he said.

"For kids, I think it's a really great hobby because it teaches them about science and the universe. As a family, you can go out there with just a pair of binoculars and it's a great activity that you can do together. It's cheap and it also gets you away from the TV."

Miles away from the city lights, Waltman observes the sky with his two main telescopes a couple times a week to look for new objects, revisit old ones and just to take in the beauty of space and relax. He said of the 14 or 15 meteor showers that occur a year he attempts to see at least five of them. It's true, viewing the bright, big objects from earth sounds like it would appeal to most people and for those who are just starting out he has some advice to give. It is just a preview of a class he is giving, Backyard Astronomy Sept. 24 - Oct. 29 through Millsaps College Community enrichment series.

"The constellations are kind of like roadmaps, you have to have some barring. You learn the constellations and then you learn a specific object that you have and those are like your landmarks in the sky.

"If you're interested in taking up a hobby I would recommend diving into astronomy to anyone, it really is something to see."

Waltman has 30 years experience in amateur astronomy. He is a past president and newsletter editor of the Jackson Astronomical Association, a member of the Astronomical League. A former adjunct professor of computer science, he has participated in the workshop for Mississippi astronomy educators at French Camp and has been an award-winning participant in local and regional Star Gatherings.

His backyard astronomy class will meet for six Tuesday nights, 6-8 p.m., Sept. 24-Oct. 29. The cost is $100 plus a $5 materials fee. Visit www.millsaps.edu/conted to register for class or to find out more information.