This story was originally published in 2017.
Who hasn’t dreamed of going to space? But unless those dreams turn into a career as a member of the elite NASA astronaut program, most people remain earthbound. Lucky for them, there is way to explore our neighboring planets without needing a rocket ship or zero-gravity training or even leaving the state.
The Maine Solar System Model is a 1-to-93-million replica of the sun and nine orbiting planets stretching along U.S. Route 1 from Presque Isle to Houlton.
At that scale, the actual distance between the various planets is 93 million times that of the between the replicas of the model.
The center of this small scale universe is at the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s Folsom Hall, where the model of the sun was placed when the project was begun in 2000 and was the brainchild of Dr. Kevin McCartney, professor of geology and director of the campus’ Northern Maine Museum of Science.
Driving from UMPI, all nine planets in the solar system are visible from a car window along a 40 mile road trip south.
And according to the folks at the Maine Tourism’s Houlton Information Center, a lot of people make that celestial-themed drive.
“We do get a lot of questions and interest in the [solar system] model,” Cathy Hogan, visitor center manager, said. “Some people just notice the planets by chance and others have come specifically to find them all.”
The northern Maine model is the second largest scale model of the solar system in the world and the largest in the Western Hemisphere, according to McCartney.
Some of the planets — like the larger Jupiter and Saturn — are easier to spot from the road than the smaller orbiting bodies like Mars or Earth.
Fortunately, an online interactive and print map identify the locations of each planet.
“It was kind of neat to be involved in a project of this scope,” Scott Norton, owner of Percy’s Auto Sales in Presque Isle and host to planet Earth, said. “But when Kevin [McCartney] first came in and was pitching the idea to me, I really had no idea what planet he was from.”
McCartney laughed at the memory of that initial reaction but said it ultimately was the community’s involvement that helped bring the project to life.
“Even today I get queries from all over the place from people wanting to know how we wrote our grant or got sponsors,” McCartney said. “But I tell them it was all volunteer [and] the people here wanted it to succeed.”
After getting a better idea of what would be involved, Norton said he agreed to not only allow the model to be placed at his dealership, but he volunteered time to construct and place several other of the models.
“We do get people stopping by asking, ‘Where is Earth?’ and to take pictures,” he said. “The fact that we have Earth here is pretty cool. The engineering that went into it is really neat.”
Each of the 10 models was designed and constructed by a different artist, student group, volunteer organization or individual from materials ranging including styrofoam, fiberglass, steel and even a painted rubber baseball used to construct Mars.
The final stop on this tour-de-planets is the tiny wooden model of Pluto kept under glass at the Houlton Information Center.
“Because it’s so small, people kept stealing it,” Hogan said. “So now it’s in a protective case [but] a lot of people do come in to have their picture taken next to it.”
And speaking of Pluto, when the diminutive object was downgraded to a “dwarf planet” by the International Astronomical Union in 2006, it was decided to start including newly discovered dwarf planets into the model.
There is a model of Eris, a dwarf planet 96.7 million miles from the sun and weighing in 27 percent more massive than Pluto and added to the model in 2006.
In Maine Solar System scale, Eris is 54.5 miles south of Houlton near Topsfield.
And, like the scientific knowledge of the universe, the model is expanding all the time.
The plan is to add additional dwarfs — and even regular — planets as they are discovered.
Relative to the scale of the model, light would travel at a speed of 7 mph.
To cover the real distance between the actual sun and Pluto in the same amount of time it takes to drive the 40 miles the model spans a driver would have to get a car to move far above the speed of light. That is something McCartney said is physically impossible. It would obviously also be breaking a few speed limits along Route 1.
“It really is a great way to get people into and seeing Aroostook County and northern Maine,” Hogan said, adding many people she has spoken to tell her checking off all the planet models are on a sort of planetary bucket list.
“I hate to admit it, but I have not seen them all yet,” she said. “But that is on my own bucket list.”