December 11, 2017

Adventures along the Maine Solar System Model

ver wanted to cruise the solar system? A new project in Northern Maine enables you to do just that! Located in Aroostook county, the Maine Solar System Model is the largest complete representation of our solar system in the world. Conceived by the Univeristy of Maine at Presque Isle and completed in the traditional “9″ planet configuration in June 14th of 2003, the model is based on a 1:93,000,000 mile scale, meaning that a mile on the model essentialy equals one astronomical unit.

One cloudy summer’s day while home on leave from Arizona, (home is Mapleton, just west of Presque Isle), my mom and I decided to tour the Solar System personally. At 38.6 miles in length, the model makes a good Sunday drive, and there are pull-offs next to each planet. My mother’s Chrystler New Yorker would be our “space ship”; at about 60mph along route 1, our average speed of 60 AU per hour would work out to about 1.55 million miles a second, pretty good for a used car! (who says you can’t go faster than the speed of light?)
Our aventure began at Folsom hall on the University of Maine Campus. The sun is 49.5 feet in diameter on the scale model, and is represented by an I-beam rim in the stairwell, along with a wall painting on the third floor.

A short jaunt across route 1 from the campus lies Mercury, at 0.4 miles from the sun and 2.1″ in diameter. It is situated atop a steel pole like most of the solar system models and is in Burrelle’s parking lot. I think its cool (figuratively!) to look back from Mercury at the the building which houses the Sun.

A short distance up the road at 0.7 miles from the Sun lies a 5.2″ model of Venus.

This one is highly stylized; maybe its supposed to be “Venus in the ultraviolet” or something. It located in front of the Budget Traveler Inn, again in sight of the university and the Earth.

Next comes my personnal favorite planet, in that its the only one I’ve found upon which I can survive; Earth.

Of course, this located at one mile out, 5.5″ in diameter, with the moon hanging nearby. Percys’ auto sales provides the scenic backdrop.

Next, up, and the farthest one I’ve jogged to, is Mars.

At 2.9″ and 1.5mi, its located next to the old “Welcome to Presque Isle” sign.
Next, the king of the planets, Jupiter. It and its compliement of Galilean moons is large enough to warrant its own park.

Its been said that the Solar System amounts to “Jupiter plus debris” and this 61.4″ model at 5.3 miles supports that asertion.

Onward, just before Mars Hill, is the winner of my “best visual appearance” model.

I especially like this one because it closely resembles what Saturn actually looks like visually. I’ve stared at Saturn many a night through the eyepiece; they definitely got this one right!

It lies at 9 miles in the town of Westfield, and is 51.9″ in diameter.

Entering the of the outer solar system, our first stop is Uranus (pronounced YOUR-an-us, not to ryme with a body part!). It lies in front of the Bridgewater town hall at 19.5 miles. Its 22″ in diameter.

Incidentally, you can see our faster-than-light “spaceship” in the foreground!

Moving on to Littleton, at 30.6 miles and 21.3″ in diameter, is the planet Neptune.

I personnally think this one is the toughest one to find, as its not really near any landmark. I sometimes miss it on my many flights up route 1.

Finally the most maligned of the “planets” and the only model thats not visible from the road, I give you Pluto.

This is actually located inside the vistors center in Houlton near the I-95 interchange; Pluto is a mere 1″ in diameter.

So there you have it; an entire solar system in an afternoon. These were constructed and painted entirely by local students and businesses; a website for the model can be found at;

http://www.umpi.maine.edu/info/nmms/solar/index.htm

Another fun project (well fun for me, anyway!) Would be to run the length of the Solar System model. I even can envision a “Solar System relay” were teams of nine complete the run. The sun to Mecury and the inner planets would be a sprint; those who take up the challenge of the outer planets would have more of a marathon facing them.
The Solar System model is also due for some updates; with the IAU(International Astronomical Union)’s recent controversial demotion of Pluto, several bodies have now entered the “dwarf planet” status. Plans are afoot to add Ceres between Mars and Jupiter and Eris(formerly known as Xena and 2003 UB313) in Topsham in or around 2008. I will post a supplementary update here when I get a chance to “tour” them. Also look for my two cents (Isn’t the power of the blog-o-sphere grand?) on the IAUs decision soon.
So if you ever find yourself in extreme Northern Maine on a sunny day, get out, pack a lunch (or enjoy one at the Irving One Stop diner in Houlton like we did), and tour the Solar System. Be sure to debate such topical issues as “what is a planet?” while transiting exotic Aroostook county. See if you can beat the IAU at their own game. If anything else, it might show the kids that there is more “out there” than Ipods and Paris Hilton!

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  1. [...] The Solar System has become a much more complicated place. As reported in this space last year,  The Maine Solar System model (MSSM) in Aroostook County, Maine was constructed starting in 2000 [...]

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