Bringing the Sky to Earth

I had the opportunity to help a group of young men on a high adventure outing understand the scope and scale of our solar system. While the young men hiked through the rugged and spectacular scenery of Bryce Canyon, Utah, I set up my astronomy gear some 45 minutes away at a Dude Ranch named Rock’n R Ranch. The southern Utah sky is excellent for star gazing, and while the clouds piled up during the day, by about midnight they had dissipated.

One of the things I showed the group was a scale model of our solar system. I followed the same scale that Guy Ottewell had published in The Thousand-Yard Model. Sure enough, the scale takes about one thousand yards to lay out, if each inch represents 100,000 miles of distance, or each step a person takes represents 3.6 million miles.

I placed a basketball representing the sun at the head of a trail, and then walked off the scale. I stepped 10 paces and set down a marker for the planet Mercury. Another 9 paces and I placed a marker for the planet Venus. 7 more paces for Earth and 14 paces for Mars. Then the pacing starts getting quite large. From Mars to Jupiter takes 95 paces. From Jupiter to Saturn another 112 paces. 249 more paces to Uranus, and 281 paces to Neptune, and 242 more paces to Pluto. The total distance is over 10 football fields, or about 1,020 yards.

While I have laid out this system before, this was the first time I did it in lights! My markers were little battery operated LED lights attached to stakes. I knew we would be looking at this in the dark, and fortunately I had a huge field to lay out my ground-plan. Further, I used red lights to represent Mercury, Venus, and Mars; blue lights to represent Earth, Uranus, and Neptune; green lights for Jupiter and Saturn. Because Pluto is so far away I represented it with a white light.

It worked amazingly. The lights were bright and could be seen stretching out into a black landscape whose vastness almost made it look like empty space itself. In the middle of this system was my telescope and equipment. I showed the group the relative distances and make up of each of the planets, and discussed size in space. For example, on the same scale, if we were to walk to the closest star next to our sun, with every inch representing 100,000 miles, we would have to walk over 4,200 miles away.

We then spent the night looking into the sky and viewing Saturn, Mars, and several star clusters and galaxies. With the grandeur of the deep sky overhead, and the twinkling lights of the planets beneath, we seemed suspended in space. It was a very fun night.

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