Touring the solar system on foot

Posted: Sunday, March 09, 2003

Taking a tour of the solar system is as easy as taking a walk.

At Twin Lakes, the one-mile paved walking trail has been painted with the sun and the nine planets, incorporating their relative size and relative distance apart.

The Juneau Community Planet Walk project involved school classes and volunteers from the Marie Drake Planetarium and other organizations.

Three of its paintings contain pieces of the heavenly bodies represented on the walk. So when you are stepping on the planet Mars, you are actually stepping on a little of the real Mars. Your "one small step ..." on the moon is on part of the real moon. And the asteroid belt contains part of a real asteroid.

The size scale on the planet walk has a 52-foot diameter sun; Jupiter is 5 feet 4.1 inches in diameter; Earth is 5.7 inches; and Pluto is 1 inch. The distance scale has Mercury 52 feet from the sun; Venus, 97 feet; Earth, 134 feet; and Pluto, a mile from the sun.

My niece Eden Orelove was the project assistant and did the initial trail measurements. She calculated the planets' relative size and distance along the trail.

"Different scales were used for the relative distance and relative size," she said. "If we used the same scale for both size and distance, Pluto would be 42 miles away."

Local school classes and volunteer organizations were invited to paint the sun and each of the planets.

The completed project is both an astronomy lesson and a work of art, teaching astronomy in a fun way.

Steve Cosgrove, the chief painter on the project, painted the sun complete with solar flares and corona loops.

"The sun is very dynamic and I wanted to show as much activity as possible," he said.

Earth's moon was painted by 2-year-old Hannah Turlove. At the distance scale, the moon is 4.2 inches from the Earth. At the size scale, the moon's diameter on the trail is 1.6 inches.

The moon was painted with pieces of the real moon. The paint was mixed with pieces from the Dar al Gani 400 meteorite obtained from Bethany Sciences - the Universe Collection. This was the third lunar meteorite found outside of Antarctica and was recovered in the Libyan part of the Sahara Desert in March 1998.

Mars is the only planet on the walk that is painted red. It was painted with pieces from a stone meteorite that fell near the village of Zagami in the Katsina Province in Nigeria in 1964. It is a very young volcanic rock and contains trapped gases in the same percentages as the material tested by the Viking probe in 1976 and the 1997 Pathfinder mission.

In addition to the sun and the planets, there is an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The belt, painted to look like a man's belt, was painted with pieces of the meteorite that created Meteor Crater in Arizona, hit about 30,000 years ago, leaving a crater 4,000 feet across and 600 feet deep. Upon impact, a meteorite is believed to have vaporized and fragments were thrown as far as 11 miles.

At each planet location, there is a sign painted on the sidewalk that states the name of the planet, the distance to the sun in miles, and the diameter of the planet in miles.

Each planet has a north and south pole marker, indicating the tilt of the axis.

Rings were added to the four planets that have rings. A red spot was added to Jupiter, representing the Great Red Spot storm on the planet.

At the beginning of the trail there is a sign that identifies the project and provides additional astronomical information and the names of the groups that painted each of the planets.

The vastness of space starts to become apparent after the planet Mars, as you continue your journey to the outer planets.

We have sent many spacecraft to the near planets (Mercury, Venus, and Mars), only a few spacecraft to Jupiter and Saturn, only one to Uranus and Neptune, and none to Pluto. The walking tour of the solar system helps show the vastness of space and helps in understanding the difficulties in space exploration. The planet walk ends at Pluto which is 3.6 billion miles from the sun - one mile from the sun on the trail.

The Juneau Community Planet Walk is an interactive experience. Just by taking a walk, one learns the vastness of space - and our place in the universe.

I was invited to contribute to this column, which usually is about birds, so I will close by saying that I often see birds during my walk through the solar system.

Michael Orelove is an amateur astronomer and volunteer at Marie Drake Planetarium. Jim and Judy Hauck will present a slide show on their three-week wildlife and photography safari to major game parks in Kenya when Juneau Audubon Society meets 7:30 p.m. March 13 at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School Library. Contact the organization through their web site,

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