Astronaut Raja Chari was peppered with questions from Hall STEM Academy schoolchildren at the beginning of the celebration of the launch of its brand-new, world-class observatory at Hall STEM Academy on Wednesday, November 9, in Minneapolis. Credit: Renée Jones Schneider | Star Tribune

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A north Minneapolis magnet elementary school unveiled its new two-story space observatory Wednesday evening—complete with two research-grade telescopes—and a visit with an astronaut from NASA.

Dozens of students and their parents toured the $1.2 million observatory built at Hall STEM Academy and listened to astronaut Raja Chari talk of his work in space. The school, which serves about 220 students in pre-K to fifth grade, is the first elementary school in the state to have an observatory, said Joel Halvorson, STEM coordinator at Hall.

Chari, who was born in Wisconsin and grew up in Iowa, said he and his colleagues were stunned when they learned about the observatory attached to the elementary school.

“I’m envious of you guys having an observatory in your school,” Chari said. “Dream big, because you guys are going to change the world and the universe.”

Chari was commander of the NASA SpaceX Crew-3 mission to the International Space Station launched on November 10, 2021. He and his crew spent 177 days in orbit, according to NASA’s website. There, he performed two spacewalks and helped in capturing and releasing three SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and two Cygnus cargo vehicles.

The telescope could spark student interest in science and space at a young age, Chari said. New science tables in his eighth-grade classroom was his “spark” into science, he said.

NASA astronaut Raja Chari told Zyah Drakeford, 10, facts about the observatory. Drakeford and others got a chance to view it during a celebration of the launch of the brand-new, world-class observatory at Hall STEM Academy on Wednesday, November 9, in Minneapolis. Credit: Renée Jones Schneider | Star Tribune

“You guys have really invested in something special here,” Chari said.

Funding for the observatory came from Minneapolis Public Schools’ Comprehensive District Design plan, which aims to eliminate policies and practices that disadvantage students of color and low-income students and brings critical resources to the city’s North Side, Halvorson said.

School officials are still deciding how students will use the telescopes for class, he said. Cameras hooked up to the telescope can record night events, when school usually isn’t in session, for students to watch the next day.

The school also plans to open it up for community use in the future.

Fifth-grader Tristan Van Berlo, 10, said he didn’t think the two-story observatory and large telescopes would be as big as what he saw.

“I thought it was going to be tiny,” he said. “I thought it was going to be twice the height of a chair.”

Mark Job, president of the Minnesota Astronomical Society, advised school staff on the project and said he was impressed with what the school has done. Despite city light pollution, the observatory still gives a good view of planets like Jupiter and Mars because of its shutters, he said.

“During the day, we’ll be able to use that 5-inch refractor to look at the sun and sun spots,” he said to the first group of parents and students who climbed up the observatory’s circular stairwell. “It’s not just a nighttime thing. It will work both ways.”

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Alex Chhith

Alex Chhith is a general assignment reporter for the Star Tribune.