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Traveling Through Space on U.S. 1, Maine

 

If you've been following the space race to land on Mars, to return to the Moon, to see beyond the known galaxies, you've more than likely got Florida or California on your mind, or maybe even Houston (no problem!) But you're not likely to have realized that our entire solar system is in Aroostook County, Maine.

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The journey starts here, on the Presque Isle campus of the University of Maine, with the Sun. Too big to be a big fiery ball, but showing its rays in a stairwell.

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Presque Isle may not really be the center of the universe, but let's start the story of the Maine Solar System Model there, where in May, 2000 UMPI announced the idea of building a 40-mile long scale model along U.S. 1 from Presque Isle to Houlton.

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Seven hundred volunteers took part in the project, which its website calls "an activity that’s equal parts scavenger hunt and science education." The first planet, Saturn, was in place two years and change later, and by June, 2003, the model was ready for prime time with placement of Uranus.

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The dedication ceremony, above, included local officials, a handful of professors, an astronaut and Sen. Susan Collins.

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Traveling with my grandson, we planned to tour the whole solar system in one afternoon, but quickly found a detour: the brochure told us that Mercury was at Griffeth Honda, but Google Maps told us that it was "out of service." And it was; apparently it's out for repairs, and not by a car dealer.

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So, we headed down the road to the Chamber of Commerce building, where we found Venus high in the sky above a very tempting menu of events we couldn't stay for.

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Perry's Auto Sales was the host for the Earth and Moon (that's the moon back there on its own pole). Given that the model places the planets along the road based on 1 Astronomical Unit per mile, a distance equal to that between earth and sun, we were still distinctly in the suburbs of Presque Isle.

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But soon we were ready to leave Presque Isle's orbit: Mars is right next to the Welcome to Presque Isle sign at the city's edge. A mile or so away, we ran into the Asteroid Belt, but sustained no damage, other than a strained back trying to look up at the .4" ball mounted near the Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall.

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We were passing through some seriously nice scenery even without the astronomical wonders, so you'll see some pictures here that show no evidence of planetary motion...

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Now we were ready for our sixth stop, a little over five miles from the sun, I mean campus. Here's Jupiter, ready to do double-duty if needed as a disco ball. As the largest planet, it gets more detail than most.

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But for all that, it can't hold a candle to Saturn, number two in size and our next stop down Route 1. Saturn has many moons, but the model's brochure says Titan is the only one big enough to show in the model. Look closely and see if you can find it: We couldn't.

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Uranus, the butt of many jokes, was in Bridgewater, 20 miles from campus, and outside a school, where the base of the planet is decorated with children's artwork from a few summers ago.

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Another eleven miles brought us to Littleton, where Neptune had taken up residence.

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And then we come to the saddest story in the universe, or at least in the solar system: The demotion of Pluto from planet to nobody. Or, anyway, to dwarf planet. Here it is, 33 miles from Presque Isle, and on the grounds of the South Aroostook Agricultural Museum (sadly closed the day we visited).

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But, demoted or not, Pluto still has its own little moon, Charon, one of at least five moons. Not bad for a dwarf planet, eh? The model, by the way, now includes the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt, and Eris, which is so far from the sun it's another 55 miles away from Pluto!

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And now, Pluto's revenge, and another sad story. In 2006, when Pluto was demoted and Ceres and Eris added, Pluto got a second model. Because its orbit is so elliptical, its place in the field at the museum represents its 'present' location; the model below in the state tourism information office at Houlton represents its average distance from the sun.

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The sad story? When I stopped in to see the model and to get a Maine highway map, I found a lone state official sitting behind a desk, surrounded by packed cartons and very little furniture. The center was permanently closing, and he was waiting for the end of his shift at 6 pm, when his instructions were to turn off the lights, lock the door, and slip the key back in through the mail slot.

When I asked, he told me he had no information on where he would be working next, or what would happen to poor little Pluto.

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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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