A new device at the JMS observatory opens more eyes to the universe
(12/01/2023) Ron Schmit has been delivering the universe to the eyes of students around Anoka-Hennepin since 2014 as the coordinator of the observatory located at Jackson Middle School - A Specialty School for Math and Science (JMS), and now, viewing the skies is accessible to more individuals because of a new device he helped create.
Anoka-Hennepin is one of the few districts in the nation with an observatory. Teachers and students from all grade levels and schools across the district have utilized the facility to reinforce curriculum or view into space. The facility features a classroom area that includes a mini planetarium and video screens offering live looks into outer space.
The second floor of the facility, inside the dome, houses a fully rotational telescope that is operated by a remote control, offering a real-time look into the universe. The telescope room is also accessible by wheelchair by a lift, allowing more students to enjoy the opportunity, but there was still one small but important piece missing.
Rewind to 2014 when Schmit was offered the opportunity to become the coordinator of the observatory at JMS. Schmit invited his family to celebrate his 50th birthday but also show off his new office and take a glance into space through the telescope. While on the tour, his mother was using a wheelchair and was not able to view Saturn, Mars, or the night’s crescent moon like everyone else.
While she assured him she was fine by not getting to see it with her own eyes, she left her son with a message that sticks with him to this day: “Now you go make young astronomers out of those kids,” she told him.
Years of research for a solution to reach that goal resulted in equipment that was out of reach for limited school budgets. So, Schmit got to work to find a way to do it himself.
Schmit turned to his expertise and pool of resources, including a colleague at the Minnesota Astronomical Society who develops optical accessories for his telescopes. After a few test fits and design choices, they created a working prototype relay scope made out of two small telescopes pointed at each other. The first would take the image from the main scope and send it to a second telescope at the other end of a short pipe.
On Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023, clear skies and the stars aligned for a viewing. The new relay scope attached to the main telescope via a tripod, allows anyone in a wheelchair to view the solar system. Photos of students viewing through the telescope for the first time.
Schmit invited three JMS students, Miguel, Andrew, and Bryton to be the first to try out the new device and what a sight it was. Venus, the moon, the sun, and a bright star, Spica, all viewed through the telescope on that night, brought smiles to the faces of more students.
“I have no words,” and “awesome,” were just a few phrases used to describe the experience. One student said “I think I want to be a science teacher someday. Maybe even teach astronomy.”
Just two short months after the birthday party at the observatory Schmit lost his mother to cancer. Nine years later, he has helped provide the universe to more students and possibly even made astronomers out of those kids.
“The timing blew me away,” Schmit said. “The hope that began that night, is finally realized for now we have a tool, and a few more candidates.”
Did you know: The JMS observatory offers many public viewing opportunities throughout the year. Visit the JMS observatory to look at the moon, planets, stars and constellations, and anything else found in space. Public viewings are held at least twice each month, if clear, along with special event nights when something of interest is happening in the sky above. Learn more about the JMS observatory at ahschools.us/jmsobservatory.