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Several bright members of the solar system are in good view right now. The Sun is in view all day, every day. The Moon rises in the wee hours of tomorrow morning and is low in the sky at first light. And as night falls this evening, the golden planet Saturn is low in the southeast, with the brighter planet Jupiter about the same height in the west.
All of these bodies are a long way off. The Moon’s the closest at a quarter-of-a-million miles, while Saturn’s the farthest at about 800 million miles.
Such distances are tough to comprehend. But several groups have tried to make the enormous distances easier to grasp by building miles-long models of the solar system.
One in Maine, for example, follows U.S. Highway 1. The Sun is on the campus of the University of Maine in Presque Isle. The dwarf planet Pluto is in Houlton — 40 miles away. Scale models of each world are located along the way.
Another one stretches from Peoria to Kewanee, Illinois. And another was recently completed in New Mexico. It follows State Highway 6563 — named for a wavelength of light — through the mountains from Cloudcroft to Sunspot, site of the Sun-watching Sacramento Peak Observatory. Markers indicate the relative sizes and distances of the planets.
The New Mexico model covers 16 road miles. But the real solar system is 250 million times larger — a scale that’s hard to comprehend now matter how good the model is.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013
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