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Constellations and conservation in Afton

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.

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 Astronomical Society is a nonprofit research organization.

The tentative grand opening of the observatory is planned for Saturday, Aug. 7.

The Belwin Conservancy's partnership with the astronomical society, which includes 450 members, dates back to the early 1970s when the amateur astronomers would set up their telescope on Father George Metcalf's property.

"Father Metcalf had an interest in astronomy to begin with," said Andrew Fraser, who is a founding member of the astronomical society.

Belwin eventually acquired the property.

The astronomical society received the refracting telescope from an anonymous donor and it came with the stipulation that an observatory had to be built.

From there Belwin and the astronomical society 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.

"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."

Construction on the observatory began last October.

The new 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."

Fraser said he could foresee astronomical society 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 firsthand, all you can do is observe it."

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

In the future, the astronomical society plans to 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 have 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."

In addition to the Belwin Conservancy star parties, Fraser said that the the astronomical society intends to hold invitation-only events for the public to come and look through the telescope.

Both Hobbs and Fraser said they are excited about the opening of the observatory.

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

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

For more information on the Minnesota Astronomical Society, visit

For more information on the Belwin Conservancy, visit

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.

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