Voyage to the solar system

Contributed by
Dec 5, 2006
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Note: At 10:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, NASA will be having a "major" press conference about Mars. All they have said is that it's news from the Mars Global Surveyor, the probe with which they recently lost communication. The news is about something MGS found, and the rumor mill is grinding away. I know nothing more about this and wouldn't break the embargo even if I did know. :-) I'll post after the conference. Until then, here's an almost totally different topic.

I got an email from a friend the other day reminded me of something I did recently.

A couple of years ago, The Little Astronomer's teacher asked if I could come in and give a talk to her 3rd grade class. I freaked about it, because I'm not used to talking to little kids. I emailed a friend who works at a museum and asked what she usually did, and she recommended I make a scale model of the solar system using a 100 foot rope.

Brilliant!

I put together a brief slide show of the planets, and prepared the rope. In the class, I gave them a tour of the solar system, then brought the kids outside. Once there, I got two kids each to volunteer to be a planet: one to hold the rope at the proper distance, and the other to hold a printout of a picture of the planet.

This worked fabulously. The inner four planets were pretty crowded, but after that things get space out (har har). Pluto is so far away that they really got to see and feel how big the solar system is, and why it takes so long for rockets to get to the planets.

My demo was a variation on a theme; it's been done before. These kinds of scale models are terrific for kids: they're fun, and anything hands-on is a lot better for the wee ones (and for the big kids like me, too, for that matter).

But back to my original thought here, the friend who emailed me was telling me about a scale model of the solar system on the Washington DC Mall. It looks pretty cool, and gives weary tourists a place to rest a moment between museums and yet still learn something.

It turns out the exhibit can be purchased for your local community. It ain't cheap: at $160,000 a pop, you may need to get some donors for it. :-) The product is the brainchild of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, which I think is a non-profit (they are sponsored by another umbrella organization).

Here's how they describe the exhibit:

The Voyage exhibition is a one to 10-billion scale model of the Solar System stretching 2,000 feet (600 meters), and containing ten 8.5 -foot high aluminum stanchions locating the Sun and nine planets, and three smaller stanchions that provide entry points to the exhibition, and address asteroids and comets.

2000 feet, yet the scale is 1 to 10,000,000,000. Wow. The solar system really is big! And I bet a lot of people have the sore feet to prove it.