The U of A modeling model turns a walk on campus into a serious space adventure

The U of A modeling model turns a walk on campus into a serious space adventure

Remember those textbook illustrations of the solar system or the foamy planets hanging in neat rows from the ceiling of your grade school classroom?

A new sprawling installation at the University of Arizona is designed to provide a true picture of our solar system in all its modest dimensions.

The Arizona Scale Model Solar System is a collection of 10 informational signs from the Kuiper Space Sciences Building on the UA Mall to the Main Gate on the west edge of campus.

Each sign represents a planet or other object in the sky, carefully positioned to show its position in the sun’s orbit. Even at 1:5 billion scale, the exhibit covers more than half a mile. It takes about 10 minutes to travel from the Sun to Neptune, a real world (real space?) distance of nearly 2.8 billion miles.

People also learn…

“It can be difficult to understand the scales of stars,” said project leader Zarah Brown, a doctoral student in the UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

The symbols provide details on the mass, diameter, surface mass and temperature of each element of the solar system. They are illustrated with NASA images and artwork by James Keane, a student at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

A permanent exhibit also doubles as a tribute to the university’s outlying contributions to planetary science. At each stop on the solar system tour, visitors can learn about UA’s related research.

Brown said they have no problem getting all the Tucson connections they need. “It was difficult to choose who to join,” he said.

Ph.D. candidate and project leader Zarah Brown poses for a photo with the first stop of the new solar system, a solar plaque outside the Kuiper Building, which stretches across the grounds of the University of Arizona on Wednesday. The transit marks the main bodies of the system, from the sun sign east of Cherry to Pluto east of Euclid.

Kelly Presnell

A heavenly walk

The signs went up in late August. The university held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its installation Friday in front of the Kuiper Building.

This is where the sun can be found, reduced to the size of a basketball, and the other inner planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, all gathered within 150 meters of each other.

The distances increase as you go west along the UA Mall, passing through the asteroid belt. The signs of Uranus and Neptune are two tenths of a mile apart.

“That gives you an idea of ​​how lonely and vast the outer space is and why some of these things are so little studied. “It’s hard to get to them,” said Brown, who is completing his Ph.D. dissertation on Saturn’s upper atmosphere.

The solar system travel tour was developed with the help of a multidisciplinary team that included about 10 graduate researchers who helped write and edit information on the signs. The show was funded by a NASA Space Fellowship grant awarded to Brown in 2020 and later extended.

He said he has been fascinated by the size of the planet since he started learning about it in elementary school.

Once when he was a child, he tried to draw the planets in their proper scale and distance using a calculator and art supplies, but he had to give up the effort when he realized that he would have to ask his father for several hundred. many pages.

“It was mind boggling. There is all this empty space around. Everything that feels so big and so important is actually so small,” Brown said. “This was something I felt compelled to do for a very long time.”

The solar system exhibit is designed to serve as an educational tool for UA students and campus visitors alike. As part of the project, Brown is designing a lab exercise to help undergraduates estimate large numbers and long distances by walking installations and doing math along the way.

Out there

Brown said there is a bit of “environmentalism” included in the sign of Venus, where the “runaway greenhouse effect” has given the planet enough heat to melt man-made space in a matter of minutes.

“The interactions between the surface and the atmosphere are the same processes that occur on Earth,” he said.

The QR code on each sign is a link to a website that can be used with a screen reader for the visually impaired. Brown hopes the website will one day be expanded to include additional information about the solar system and UA’s role in exploring it, with updates as new discoveries are made.

Installations were planned based on the average orbital distance of each object, although some adjustments were made to ensure that the features ended up in some safe and convenient location.

“We did something bad at Neptune,” Brown said. “It could be conveniently located in the middle of Park Avenue.”

Instead, it can be found just inside the volcanic rock wall of the Main Park Gate and University Boulevard.

Eventually, the installation will extend beyond the campus about 700 feet to include Pluto. Brown said they plan to place the sign near the corner of University and Euclid Avenue, once they finalize a formal agreement with the Marshall Foundation, which owns the Main Gate Square commercial development there.

“We decided to include it because I think the argument about Pluto being a planet is amazing,” Brown said. “It gets people emotional, which is sometimes hard to do with some of these space titles that people feel invested in. People have strong opinions about Pluto.”

He added that the dwarf planet has an unusual orbit, so long that its sign can be located as far away as Time Market, one-third of a mile west on University Boulevard.

And if that’s not impressive enough, consider this: If you wanted to include Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun, Brown said the scale model would have to be expanded about 5,000 miles, about the distance between Tucson and Tucson. Glasgow, Scotland.

“One of the things that people take away from this model is that we are precious and small,” Brown said. Why do we neglect our only home? And why don’t we treat each other a little better? The only thing we have is each other in this huge amount of space. “

Contact reporter Henry Brean at [email protected] or 573-4283. On Twitter: @RefriedBrean

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