War of the Worlds

Have you ever heard of a scale solar system model?

It’s when a university or a museum or just some space enthusiasts make a model of the solar system, scaled both in size and distance. It means that the four inner planets are fairly close to one another, but the gaseous and icy out planets beyond the asteroid belt are far indeed, some requiring a visit by car. Jon and I have had bad luck with solar system models in the past. Both times we enthusiastically went into it, only to find missing planets and lame representations- in the case of Atlanta, both.

Our first attempt was in Boston in late 2009/early 2010. We thought we would shake things up by visiting the planets in reverse order, starting with Pluto (classified as a planet back in the 90s when the project was started) and working our way in toward the sun. We though our pictures would be more illustrative if we had a constant sphere with which to compare all the planets’ sizes. We chose the Eyeball of Size Comparision, then set out on our way to Pluto, which was in Newton, MA and several miles from The Sun, which would be at the Boston Museum of Science.

me pluto

The chilly, icy day complemented the chilliness of the edges of our solar system. We had success with a few of the planets, eyeballing Jupiter at South Station:
Eyeball Jupiter

Unfortunately, Boston’s Community Solar System project was not well-maintained. I called the Museum of Science to ask about the missing planets, citing that we were doing this as a winter break project with our son. For some reason I thought the lady on the phone might take me more seriously if a cherubic, wide-eyed junior scientist was involved. No dice. Feeling stubborn, Jon and I found ways around the missing planets, and took pictures at the locations where they should have appeared.

Jon Saturn

Eyeball Neptune

Even the Museum of Science was missing Mercury. I had to dash off into the gift shop to find a sphere that was about the same scale as Mercury should have been, and came up with a beetle-ball.

Jon Mercury

When we moved to Atlanta, we looked up to see if Atlanta also had a solar system project, maybe a more complete set. I found a project started by Agnes Scott College, and we set off to find these planets- Eyeball of Size Comparison in hand, this time in order from the sun.

Eyeball Mars

Earth Me

But we gave up after Mars. This solar system project was even worse than Boston’s! For one, instead of 3D models of the planets, they just had dumb cardboard pictures of the planets scattered around the Atlanta area. It was harder to be enthusiastic about them. But what was worse is that this solar system was also missing a number of planets. The worst was when I e-mailed Agnes Scott College and asked about the missing planets, saying that my daughter was very excited about the project and really wanted to find them. The secret is that my imaginary children aren’t really much into science. They’re more into sports and fashion and feel like I’m just dragging them along. My imaginary children are a real disappointment. The Agnes Scott guy who answered my e-mail said “…Uranus is at the airport, the others are missing.” Really, the airport? The busiest airport in the world has an anus in it somewhere? Well, that narrows it down a bit. This whole idea was my fault though, for thinking that something that doesn’t completely suck could ever originate from Agnes Scott College.

But on this roadtrip that Jon and I have just returned from, our planetary needs were satisfied. Among other places, we went to Presque Isle for the Maine Solar System Project. Because we’d been heading in from New Brunswick, we decided to copy our Boston mission and start with Pluto, working our way inward. Pluto was at a highway rest stop just over the Canadian border, 40 miles away from the sun. Pluto’s forever-pal Charon was with him.

Maine Pluto

Funny how the world works- I don’t have the original eyeball, but where I work now has an abundance of them. The one I borrowed is used as a model to demonstrate how to position a mouse eye in paraffin for embedding and tissue sectioning. But it did the trick nicely for my purposes.

What I liked about the Maine Solar System Project was that the scale was 1:93,000,000, which is an astronomical unit, or the actual real-life distance of the earth from the sun. But it meant that each planet was way far away from one another, and this larger scale meant that the Eyeball of Size Comparison was too small to be useful, except compared to Pluto. But we took it along anyway, holding it up as we posed.

Next stop Neptune, with Eyeball in tow:

Maine Neptune

And that Jon, can’t stop giggling every time I say Uranus, even though I no longer use the embarrassing and suggestive pronunciation. The modern pronunciation, as everybody knows in New New York, is Urectum.


Saturn’s park was definitely the most well-groomed. I felt plain posing with and I took out my umbrella to try to impress Saturn.

Maine Saturn

Then I had an opportunity to make Jupiter appear to be growing out of Jon’s head. Jupiter also came with the Galilean moons, which were also to scale and were too far out to fit into the shot.


We drove through a harrowing asteroid belt, then found Mars.


Mars was also where the town of Presque Isle actually began. The inner planets would be closer and come faster now.

Earth was Earth, but also as a nice touch, included the moon.
Maine earth

Maine moon

Pretty Venus, named after the most beautiful goddess in Olympus. Funny that actual Venus is a literal hell of sulfuric acid and punishing heat.

Maine Venus

Mercury was also blazing and sauna-like. Whewf. We missed it at first and had to backtrack after The Sun because it was hard to see between those huge bushes. What are they, dark matter?

Maine Mercury

And finally we pulled into the University of Maine, Presque Isle at Folsom Hall to look for the sun. Given the scale, the sun should be enormous and impossible to miss. Nevertheless, we had trouble finding it until we realized that the big yellow arch was meant to represent the sun. The dolphins orbiting nearby threw us off.

Maine Sun

And thus concluded our first complete, non-lame scale model of the solar system. I think Presque Isle Maine deserves a lot of credit for pulling off something that neither Boston nor Atlanta has been able to do.