It's a project of universal appeal, completed just in time for this summer's dazzling Perseid meteor shower.
If all goes according to schedule, Minnesota's newest observatory, complete with one of the best telescopes of its type in the nation, will be open for star-gazing business Saturday in rural Afton.
The Joseph J. Casby Memorial Observatory, a joint project of the Minnesota Astronomical Society (MAS) and the Belwin Conservancy, is nearly ready to crack open its dome and begin bringing images from space to observers on Earth -- expert amateurs, eager students and those who just want to get a closer look at the spectacle of the universe.
The project to build the observatory has been in the works for a couple of years, said Andy Fraser of the MAS. It was precipitated by the donation of a telescope by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.
The 10-inch refracting telescope has astronomers tantalized. "As modern refracting telescopes go, there's probably only a few like it in the country," Fraser said. Its value is estimated between $70,000 and $80,000.
"The thing that makes this exceptional is the optical quality of the images -- the stars are just absolute pinpoints," Fraser said. "The minute detail on the planets is just extraordinary."
The new telescope will be like upgrading from analog television to high-definition, Fraser said, which is why MAS members are excited.
"It will be pretty sophisticated in terms of observation for educational purposes," Fraser said.
Several school districts, including Woodbury, North St. Paul, West St. Paul and South St. Paul, have already signed on to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the telescope, observatory and adjoining classroom, which will be equipped to show images from space on large screens. The observatory itself can hold six to eight people at a time.
"I anticipate I will probably be involved in projects for what I'll called advanced students," said Fraser, a retired 3M employee who has had a passion for astronomy since the age of 7 and has gladly shared that passion for decades.
The MAS has three other observatories in the state: Onan Observatory at Baylor Regional Park near Norwood-Young America, which features a 20-inch reflecting telescope; Cherry Grove, 20 miles south of Cannon Falls, which includes a 16-inch reflecting telescope; and Long Lake Conservation Center in Aitkin County, to which astronomers bring their own observing equipment. The Long Lake site features some of the darkest skies and lowest light interference of the those sites used by MAS, but it is about 120 miles north of Minneapolis.
The new site offers the dark skies that astronomers like, while being only minutes from the Twin Cities. "It's kind of an island of relative darkness," Fraser said. "You'll get some glow from the west and northwest, but it's still pretty good light out there."
For the Belwin Conservancy, adding the observatory is a logical extension of its efforts to expand its educational and research mission that has steadily evolved over the past 40 years, said Steve Hobbs, the conservancy's executive director.
For the past three years, Hobbs has been leading the effort to transform the conservancy from a private foundation to a public charity. Along with the change in legal status and switching its name from Belwin Foundation to Belwin Conservancy, the significant change in mission meant pursuing new and broader ways to foster conservation and education efforts.
Belwin and MAS worked closely on the observatory's design so that it blends in with the wooded surrounding. Belwin staff helped in construction as well. There is also access to restrooms, and the area is staffed 24 hours a day.
There has actually been an astronomical observation point on the Belwin property going back nearly 40 years, Fraser said. The Rev. George Metcalf, an Episcopal priest who was Gen. George Patton's personal chaplain and served in the 29th Infantry during World War II, was also an avid amateur astronomer. When he returned from the war, he and his wife bought some secluded acreage near Afton from which he could watch the stars, and he shared the site with others who shared his interest.
Belwin eventually acquired the site and let the astronomers keep coming to the site, but it never went beyond an open field from which they could observe space.
Then Belwin went in a new, expansive direction, and the MAS acquired a gorgeous, observatory-quality telescope with which to view space but had no permanent home.
"It was kind of perfect timing," said Steve Hobbs, executive director of the Belwin Conservancy. "They were trying to find the best site for an observatory -- it has a great aspect to the south and all the things that astronomers love."
Getting more people out to experience nature intimately includes both the world close to home and beyond, he said.
"The reason it's so complementary, from our perspective, is that, while we have hiking trails, the bison herd, athletic fields -- but at night, we don't do anything," Hobbs said. The observatory will open new possibilities.
"Not only will people be able to come and learn about the wonders of the universe, but they'll be able to experience what we have here at nighttime, too. They'll hear owls, coyotes and just experience the land in a whole new perspective."
Jim Anderson • 612-673-7199