July 26, 2017

The Maine Solar System Model: An Update.

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 and was renowned as the world largest solar system representation.

At a scale of one astronomical unit equals one mile, the model stretched down Route 1 from the University of Maine in Presque Isle to the Tourist Information Center in Houlton. Now, not to be out done, the model has recently seen the additions of two newly anointed dwarf planets, Ceres, Eris, as well as a second Pluto model. This updates the model in line with the current IAU/planet/dwarf planet/Plutoid controversy. Ever one for a good local astronomical tale, we here at Astroguyz decided on one recent rare sunny summer day to retake the “tour”.

First, a caveat: the new additions are extremely tiny! Also, as of this post, there are no signs or markings; your best bet is set your odometer at the sun and monitor your “A.U. s” on the way out. Also, some have parking, such as Jupiter and Saturn, others, like Mars and Neptune, are a little tougher to get near. Neptune, in particular, appears to be in someone’s yard! Ah, to have a gas giant for a lawn ornament…   Traffic also tends to wiz along Route 1 as folks make the suicide run to and from downstate; perhaps that proposed I-95 extension will ease this up a bit? Our best bets to picnic along the route? We vote for Saturn and/or “Pluto II” at the Houlton Visitor’s center; in Houlton, there are Subway’s, KFC, Burger King, and McDonalds within the square mile; or for a budget picnic con vino, Hannaford’s is in the same plaza. The visitor’s center also has bathrooms, info, a pet exercise area, and free wireless from which to blog and post from!

Also, the web site for the MSSM has yet to be updated. And has anyone written a wiki for this yet? Also known as orries, a list of Solar System models can be seen here. They list the MSSM as the 4th largest, but I’d wager its’ still the largest complete representation! The model was and is very much a labor of love, as it was virtually unfunded and relied on volunteers and donations to see it through. It also stands as a monument to the hard workin’ work ethic of the folks of Aroostook County, Maine! The models themselves were all painted by local schools; we think they did a bang up job on all of them. Having intimate visual knowledge of all of them (except Eris!) I think they nailed the visual appearance of all of the planets pretty well. Venus, which visually looks pretty dazzling yet boring, has more of what appears to be a naked, ultraviolet rendition!

On the 1:93,000,000 scale, the speed of light would be a brisk running pace of about 7 mph. Of course, your average auto can warp past well that! Anyone thought of making this a relay/long distance race? It would definitely be unique…sign me up for Neptune-Pluto! The sun to Mercury would be a sprint; At 54+ miles, however, Pluto to Eris would be for the elite hard core! It is sobering to think that on this scale, the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is still 250,000 miles away! A sign post on Earth’s Moon may well serve future lunar school kids nicely…I can hear them say “Where is Presque Isle, Maine?” as they squint through their telescopes…

But on to the updates… we also filmed a short documentary on the MSSM and will be releasing it on our companion Youtube site… in the meantime, check out the trailer! To our knowledge, it’s the very first of its kind. At the least, check out the cool shirt!

Ceres is a tough find. On the eastern side of the highway in a field, the only landmark near the tiny monument is the Westfield Jehovah’s Witness building nearby. The model looks almost absurd, a miniscule speck atop its tall pedestal. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it!

The next model needs a little clarification. With the recent erection of a second Pluto model in front of the Agricultural Museum (a former school house), I’ve heard many in “the county” state in dismay “why are there two Plutos?” Well, you can never get enough of a good, controversial dwarf planet. The installation was also timely, on the heels of the IAU’s “Plutoid” definition. The reason is that Pluto journeys along a highly elliptical orbit, sometimes venturing closer to the sun than Neptune, as in did from 1979 to 1999. I like to refer to the new Littleton Pluto as “Pluto 2.0″ or “near Perihelion Pluto,” while the old Houlton Pluto as “Pluto I” or “Aphelion Pluto”. Much like Elvis, Coke or an election year, Americans love the controversy incurred by a perceived plethora of choices.   Plans are in the works to paint the model and its tiny moon Charon after the much anticipated New Horizons flyby in 2015.

Finally, on to Eris, the most distant outpost of the solar system model. This drive is for the most ardent fans of the tiny world; at 94 miles/A.U.s distant, its nearly double the distance of Pluto! Located near the Veteran’s memorial in the town of Topsfield (watch for it at the four way!), it’s a leisurely scenic drive, a welcome break from the busy northern section of Route 1. Early autumn when the leaves turn would be a prime time to go. Other highlights to keep your eyes out for include Million Dollar View (complete with turn off) and perhaps a sighting of the illusive Astroguy on a jog as a temporary Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). (Cary Plantation is currently astroblog central; I sport a dew rag and maybe a black lab!)

Like Pluto 2.0, Eris remains unpainted. Will we ever fill in this distant world? Its sole moon, tiny Dysnomia, has yet to be represented.  Any plans to add other KBO’s, such as Quaoar (43 A.U.), Makemake (46 A.U.), or Sedna (525 A.U.)?  How About the Oort Cloud (+2,000 A.U.) or the Heliopause (94 A.U.)?

So there you have it; an updated Solar System model for our troubled times. Be sure to give this unique model a look. The chances for some interesting foreground to accompany wide field astro-photography would also be unparalleled. But please, only peaceful dwarf planet protests need apply!


  1. Asdffr says:

    Why is Ceres not on the map? Eris is there but why is not Ceres? Why? Thats not nice. And why the **** they made a secont model for that **** Pluto? I think that is completely unnecessary. Why not make 20 Eris models as well?

  2. David Dickinson says:

    The Maine Solar System model was done in stages; initially, only the nine traditional planets where included, and even these where added over the span of a year. Eris, Ceres, and a second Pluto where added later to denote its closer position along its relatively elliptic orbit; the published map caught the instant in time before Ceres’ addition but after Eris had been added, thanks for noticing.

  3. Adefev says:

    Eris has much more elliptical orbit than Pluto. Are they going to make another Eris model too?

  4. David Dickinson says:

    Y’Know, Eris approaches within Pluto’s orbit near perihelion; perhaps another model with a descriptive plaque of its orbit it the Houlton visitor center along with Pluto? Or would that be too confusing to folks?

  5. Zandperl says:

    Shame it doesn’t include Nix, Hydra, and P4, but then again if it doesn’t even include the Galilean moons, we’re lucky it does include even Charon.

  6. David Dickinson says:

    The four large moons of Jupiter, Earth’s Moon, and I believe Titan are represented, but you’re right, there’s always room for expansion!


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