Solar system's scope difficult to display
Posted February 14, 2014
This week's snow called for something more than a mere snowman. Wake County Public Schools joined me via twitter in challenging students to put the snow days to a bit of academic use: make a snow solar system.
Shafwat Islam of Leesville Road High was the first to tweet a photo of his model. He earned a goody bag with NASA stickers, posters and other items for his efforts.
Honorable mention goes to twitter user @DirkNC who turned the challenge into a family project. Sons Eric and Brian even included Saturn's moon Titan in their model. Bancks Holmes of Broughton High got into the fun as well using the family deck as a canvas.
Scales were understandably off in these "snowlar systems." Even textbooks must pick size or distance as the scale to represent with any accuracy. Several dozen science museums around the world have taken on the challenge of accurately representing both size and distance of the planets.
The closest to our area extends along the National Mall in Washington, D.C. A grapefruit-sized sun was installed in a display at the street corner between the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian. The inner planets are just steps away at this 1:10 billion scale. Pluto's display is six football fields away in front of the Smithsonian Institution's castle building. It was placed five years before the IAU reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet. At this scale, even the tiniest representation of planets are visible, and you can see from one end of the model to the other to help maintain context.
The largest scale solar system model currently resides throughout Sweden. The 1:20 million scale model begins in Stockholm where the
361-foot wide Ericsson Globe serves as the sun. Models ranging in size from a 24 feet to less than 1/32 inch of planets, dwarf planets and even a few comets and asteroids are located at museums, schools and a shopping center along a 186-mile path along the country's eastern coast.
This got me thinking. Could a scale model be built in North Carolina, maybe even stretching from Manteo to Murphy?
It would be natural to use the more than three-story tall globe at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences to represent Earth. According to Roy Campbell, Director of Exhibits for the museum, the Daily Planet globe is just under 70 feet wide making it's scale 1:597,862.
A similarly scaled model of the sun could be placed in Manteo, Mercury in Plymouth, Venus in Rocky Mount and Mars west of Greensboro.
However, North Carolina can only accommodate the inner planets at that scale. Jupiter would be located on the Tennessee/Arkansas border and Neptune nearly to the Hawaiian Islands. The sun in our hypothetical solar system model would need to be nearly 1.5 miles wide, bigger than downtown Manteo itself.
Even reducing the model to Earth's local neighborhood has its challenges. A 19-foot tall moon model would make a nice addition but going 740 yards west on Jones Street would place it in the middle of the railroad tracks adjacent to 42nd Street Oyster Bar. A model International Space Station (ISS) could orbit 22 inches above the Daily Planet. Before we start building an ISS model to hang off the giant globe, consider that it would be the width of two human hairs.