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Observatory to open in Afton

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Many consider Belwin Conservancy a great place to observe nature and the land, but next month the Afton destination will also be a place to observe the night sky.

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In a partnership with the Minnesota Astronomical Society, Belwin is in the process of building an observatory, which will house a 10-inch diameter refracting telescope.

The observatory will be located near the education center.

"It's one thing to see a picture in a book of space, but to see a live image like that, there's something special about that," Belwin director Steve Hobbs said.

The Minnesota When Belwin took over the property, the MAS began talking with Hobbs about a year and a half ago about being able to remain on the property.

Hobbs asked the organization about possibly putting something more permanent on the land.

It just so happened that the MAS received the refracting telescope from an anonymous donor; it came with the stipulation that an observatory had to be built.

From there Belwin and the MAS began scouting out where a good location would be for the observatory.

"The whole idea was that we were going to just travel around Belwin lands and see what the best site was," Hobbs said. "We spent the whole night looking at the sky."

Fraser said the ideal site for the observatory was a location with a great view of the southern sky, a slope so that trees are not an obstruction and sky that was dark enough.

Belwin and MAS eventually decided on an area close in proximity to the education center.

"The site is pretty darn good relative to being this close to the Twin Cities," Hobbs said. "It's a good compromise between being 20 minutes away from the cities, but having dark enough skies that you can actually see something."

The observatory began being constructed last October. MAS volunteers were responsible for constructing the observatory.

Seeing the night under the stars

Belwin is the fourth observatory constructed by the MAS. Other observatories are located in Baylor Regional Park, in Carver County, Cherry Grove, in Goodhue County, and the Long Lake Conservation Center, in Aitkin County.

However, the newest observatory will house one of the best telescopes in the state.

Fraser said there are only about a half-dozen 10-inch refracting telescopes in the country.

The images that the telescope produces are research quality.

"It's a very unique instrument in that it's capable of producing very precise images," Fraser said. "The telescope will enable serious research and serious advanced student outreach."

The telescope is so powerful that it is capable of seeing Pluto clearly.

"All I've seen of Pluto is a fuzzy picture in some book somewhere," Hobbs said. "But, the definition of this telescope is incredible."

'Star Parties' coming

Fraser said he could foresee MAS members being out at the observatory every night.

"There will be someone out there every clear night," he said. "Space is an area of interest for a lot of people because of the mystery -- it's a field of science you can't investigate first hand, all you can do is observe it."

In addition to the refracting telescope, the observatory will also include decks to set up personal telescopes.

Even though primarily the MAS will use the observatory, Hobbs said Belwin Conservancy members would also be invited to enjoy the observatory as well.

"We want to have our Belwin Conservancy members come and be able to give them a show," he said.

The MAS will host "Star Parties" where Belwin members can come together in the education center and watch a live feed from the telescope onto a screen.

"This is a better way of doing it than having a long line of people waiting to look through a telescope," Hobbs said.

Additionally during the Star Parties, Hobbs said he hopes to bring members around the property and expose them to Belwin at night.

"It's our goal to give people a real appreciation for nature and there's a quietness that's here at night that you don't get during the daytime," Hobbs said,

In addition to the Belwin Conservancy Star Parties, Fraser said that the MAS intends to hold invitation-only events for the public to come and look through the telescope.

Fraser said he hopes the observatory can provide for decades and generations.

"Everyone should be exposed to the night sky," he said.

For more information on the Minnesota Astronomical Society, visit http://www.mnastro.org.

For more information on the Belwin Conservancy, visit http://www.belwin.org.

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Amber Kispert-Smith
Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.
(651) 702-0976
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