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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Solar System Model

Air Date: Week of

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A 40-mile long model of the solar system is currently being built in northern Maine. The project is the brainchild of a geology professor at the University of Maine and it's believed to be the worldÕs largest scale model of the sun and planets. Maine Public Radio's Matthew Algeo has our story.


TOOMEY: What's thought to be the largest scale model of the solar system is under construction in northern Maine. When it's completed, sometime next spring, the model will stretch for 40 miles along U.S. Route 1 in Aroostook County. Maine Public Radio's Matthew Algeo recently visited the planetary work-in-progress and he has this report.


ALGEO: In a garage on the campus of the University of Maine in Presque Isle, Kevin McCartney is putting the finishing touches on a giant model of the planet Saturn. McCartney is a geology professor at the University and the driving force behind the scale model of the solar system now under construction in Aroostook County, Maine. When it's completed the model will be the largest of its kind: at a scale of 93 million to 1, McCartney says it will not only show the relative distances between the Sun and the planets, it will also show their relative size.

McCARTNEY: We're doing the distances and the diameters at the same scale, which is a bit unusual. Most solar system models or illustrations have the distances at one scale and the diameters at another scale, because the distances are so large in comparison to the size of the planets. But we have them all on one scale.

ALGEO: For example, the smallest and most distant planet, Pluto, is about the size of a golf ball, and will be located 40 miles from the Sun, in Presque Isle. Saturn is more than 10 feet across, including the rings, and will be placed nearly 10 miles from the Sun. The planets are being constructed of fiberglass and steel. McCartney says they have to be built tough to withstand the harsh winters of northern Maine.

McCARTNEY: These are not made out of papier machZ. The components need to withstand the winter, they need to withstand our worst storm conditions, the worst weight of snow that might be on these things. That's one of the reasons why the planets are very substantially built. Winter conditions here are harsh and we've tried to build the system accordingly.

ALGEO: Along the way McCartney has had to make some practical adjustments to the model. Built to scale, the Sun would be so big that it would fill a five-story building, so instead it's represented by a wooden arc that runs up the stairwell in one of the buildings on campus. All the planets, though, are represented in three dimensions and, while the four most distant planets are still under construction, the five inner planets are already in place.


ALGEO: Recently I accompanied Kevin McCartney for a quick tour of the unfolding solar system. Beginning at the University, we headed south on Route 1, moving away from the sun.

McCARTNEY: If we were to proceed at the speed of light, going as we tour the solar system, we would be driving at 7 miles an hour. That would be the scale speed of light for the solar system model. But we are actually violating laws of physics right now, as we are traveling faster than the speed of light!

ALGEO: The first stop on our trip is Mercury, which is just four-tenths of a mile down Route 1. Mercury looks like a small gray tangerine and sits atop an 11-foot pole. Just another three-tenths of a mile down the road is Venus, which sits on a pole outside the Budget Traveler Motel.

McCARTNEY: And we are now moving towards the Earth. When we reach the Earth, we will be an astronomical unit away from the Sun, or 1 mile from the Earth, according to the scale of this model. The Earth is at Percy's Auto Sales, here on our left, just beyond the sign. You can see it from here.

ALGEO: We pull into Percy's to get a closer look at the Earth, a blue and green ball about as big as a baseball. Scott Norton is the general manager at Percy's, the Chrysler dealer in Presque Isle. Norton says he's glad Percy's got the best planet in the solar system.

NORTON: I considered myself lucky. In fact, I thought, how can I incorporate this into my business somehow? And this is "down to earth prices" or whatever we wanted to use. We did get lucky, I think, that we were going to be Earth, I thought.


MAN: Kevin, you want the red spot pointing in this direction, towards the road?

McCARTNEY: Going that way, so people coming in from the south can see it.


ALGEO: Kevin McCartney has organized a small army of volunteers to build the model, and they were out in force recently, as Jupiter was put in place, in a field just off Route 1, 5.2 miles from the Sun.


ALGEO: It was no easy feat. Jupiter is five feet in diameter and weighs about half a ton. It took a flatbed truck and a small crane to do the job. Trevor Folsom studies environmental science at the University in Presque Isle and he's one of McCartney's volunteers.

FOLSOM: I think it's incredible, the community support. I mean, this is zero dollars that you see here. That's pretty amazing, any time a community can come together for free. We've got a job site going here and it costs nothing.

ALGEO: While Kevin McCartney says the ultimate goal of the project is educational, Jim Brown, the director of economic development in Presque Isle, hopes it has another effect. He says it could boost the county's economy, by attracting tourists.

BROWN: It's an interesting project and I think that by itself, the fact that it's one of the largest, if not the largest, in the world, there's a certain drawing value to that that I think we can capitalize on.

ALGEO: According to the scale being used to build the model in Aroostook County, the nearest star outside the solar system, Alpha Centauri, would be located on the Moon - the real Moon that is, 250,000 miles from Presque Isle. And Kevin McCartney says he just might ask NASA for some help in putting it there. For Living on Earth, I'm Matthew Algeo, in Presque Isle, Maine.




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