In Episode 202, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger take a 40-mile ride across our solar system in New England’s ultimate roadside oddity! Beginning at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, the scale model of our solar system is the brain child of Professor Kevin McCartney, PhD, who rides along with the guys via phone to explain how the model went from idea to roadside reality. Starting at the Sun, Jeff and Ray travel beyond the speed of light past Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and all the way out to Pluto (it will always be a planet in our hearts).
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[DRIVING IN CAR]
JEFF: We’re going to pull in to the university right up here on the right.
RAY: Got it. So we’re driving up to the University of Maine at Presque Isle. We’re about ten miles from the Canadian border. So we’re pretty far up north.
JEFF: I love that the motto of the University of Maine at Presque Isle is quote, “North of ordinary.”
RAY: I’d say we’re north of almost everything!
JEFF: Good point. Okay, let’s park right over there by the Northern Maine Museum of Science.
[CAR STOPS DOORS CLOSE]
RAY: This is a small campus, but it’s pretty.
JEFF: I agree. Okay, let’s head inside.
[DOOR OPENS AND CLOSES]
RAY: Is what we’re looking for in here?
JEFF: What’s inside the Northern Maine Museum of Science is only the starting point. You better get your space suit on, Ray. Because we’ve come to Presque Isle, Maine to take a ride across our solar system.
JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 202 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
JEFF: We’re on a mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. From weird monsters, ghosts, odd history, aliens, to roadside oddities, we love scouring the northeastern United States looking for the croutons in the salad that is New England.
RAY: Before we begin our intragalactic journey, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals.
JEFF: When you’re traveling through space and time you’re going to need to take at least a few comforts from home. If it’s me on board the space ship, I’ll be sipping some lemon sun tea as I gaze out the window and watch the stars zip by. It’s got lemongrass leaf, green tea leaf, lemon peel, honey granules, and stevia leaf among other all natural ingredients that give it that citrus flavor with a hint of sweetness.
RAY: And to keep us breathing right in our rocket ship, I’ll bring along some Four Directions balm from Nuwati Herbals. This soothing balm contains herbs that warm the skin and it releases vapors that help keep my nose open when it’s feeling stuffy.
JEFF: Nuwati Herbals has so many great products that have become part of our daily leaves. Teas, balms, all natural no-ski-to repellent, sage, and so much more. These are herbal remedies from Mother Earth. Check out the Nuwati Herbals Web site to see all of their great products AND you legendary listeners get 20% off your order when you use the promo code LEGENDS20 at checkout. Visit Nuwati Herbals dot com. That’s N-U-W-A-T-I Herbals with an S dot com.
RAY: Okay, Jeff, when I think of space travel, I think of Cape Canaveral in Florida.
JEFF: Sure, I get that.
RAY: But I get there are plenty of space connections to New England. Alan Shepard, the first person from the United States to go into space was from Derry, New Hampshire, just to name one connection.
JEFF: Right. But this is different. I’m talking about taking a trip from the sun out past Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and so on.
RAY: How do we do that?
JEFF: It all starts right here at the Northern Maine Museum of Science. Go ahead and give this plaque a read.
RAY: Okay, it says: You are part of Norther Maine’s Aroostook County 40-mile long scale model of the Solar System. At this scale, one mile along U.S. Route 1 equals the distance from the Earth to the Sun, known as an “astronomical unit.” The Sun is located at the Northern Maine Museum of Science in Folsom Hall on the campus of the University of Maine at Presque Isle. Pluto can be seen at the Houlton Information Center, just north of the Interstate 95 interchange. The remaining eight planets: Mercury, Venus, the Earth and Moon, Jupiter with four moons, Saturn with Titan, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto are visible at locations along Route 1. All planets are built as three-dimensional models.
JEFF: And you can see this bright yellow arc that goes up through the stairwell, and into the upper floor of the building. If we were to complete that arc into a full circle, it would be the scale circumference of the sun. I don’t mean to brag, but when I was in fifth grade, I too built a model of the Solar System using Styrofoam balls that I painted, and coat hanger wires that I bent to connect the planets.
RAY: Was your model 40 miles long?!
JEFF: Mine wasn’t even 40 inches long. But I did get a B-plus on it!
RAY: I’ve got to see this.
JEFF: I don’t have my solar system model from childhood anymore.
RAY: No! The 40-mile one.
JEFF: Right. Sorry. Then let’s head back out to the car, and take a ride.
[CAR STARTING AND IDLING]
JEFF: Okay, we’ll turn right out the University of Maine parking lot, and start heading south down Route 1.
RAY: Here we go!
JEFF: Yup. Here we go!
RAY: Uhhhh Jeff, you’re driving pretty far under the speed limit.
JEFF: Yup. I’ve got the cruise control set to eight miles per hour.
RAY: 8?! Why so slow? We’re going to cause a massive traffic jam.
JEFF: Because this model of our Solar System is set to 1:93,000,000th scale. So if we were to scale down the speed of light, that would be about eight miles per hour. So theoretically, we’re traveling at the speed of light right now.
[CARS HONKING BEHIND US]
RAY: Theoretically, the drivers behind us are going to shoot us!
JEFF: Okay, so coming up here on our left is Mercury.
RAY: Oh yeah! I see a brown sign off the side of the road that says Mercury, and there’s a pole, with a little dot on top.
JEFF: Right, because everything is to scale. A little further up on the right, we should find Venus.
RAY: The landscape is open around here. There’s a small hotel on the right, a cemetery on the left, and the road is straight for as far as I can see.
JEFF: And there goes Venus as we move along at a steady 8 miles per hour…
RAY: Which of course is the speed of light to scale.
RAY: If we’re traveling the speed of light and we turn on the headlights, will they do anything?
JEFF: Let’s see.
RAY: It IS daylight right now, so tough to tell.
JEFF: Good point. Okay, we’re coming up on the one-mile mark from the University.
RAY: There’s a car dealership on our left… oh hey! Just past that there’s a sign for Earth!
JEFF: It’s blue and green, of course, and about the size of a softball. And maybe 10 feet or so away from earth is a second pole with a scale model of the moon on top—it’s maybe the size of a golf ball.
RAY: Who put this thing together anyway? I mean, we all made these models in elementary school, but this is a whole other scale!
JEFF: As we make our way to Mars, let’s get Professor Kevin McCartney, PhD on the phone.
KEVIN: I’m just known as Kevin, and I am a professor of Geology at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, and I’m one of the people who coordinated the solar system model.
RAY: Okay, we’ll call you Kevin. We appreciate that.
JEFF: We’re calling Kevin at the Old Iron Inn Bed and Breakfast in Caribou, Maine. We appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about your model as we make our way along Route 1.
RAY: Kevin, how did this project come about?
KEVIN_: The model idea developed in the late 1990s and construction began in 1999 and it took four years to get all of the various components built with the formal unveiling in 2003.
JEFF: I’d like to know, why this scale? 40 miles? Why not something bigger, or smaller for that matter?
KEVIN: Well, the scale is the most logical scale for a model here in the United States at least, which is one mile along Route 1 equaling what’s called an astronomical unit which is the distance from the Earth to the Sun. So from the Sun, which is at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, the Earth is a mile away and then everything else is to scale by distance and diameter.
JEFF: Which explains why we’re traveling at 8 miles per hour. It takes just over 8 minutes for the sun’s light to reach the earth. Okay, coming up on the left I see another brown sign… this one looks like Mars. It’s in the front of a large grass lawn with not much else around except a wooden sign behind it.
RAY: As the legend of the giant scale solar system has grown, it’s attracted school groups, astronomy clubs, and tourists, all willing to drive 40 miles to tour our Solar System. Maybe for the sake of brevity, Jeff, we can speed up the car beyond light speed? Maybe up to… say the speed limit which is 55 here?
[CAR SPEEDING UP]
JEFF: There you go. This planetary journey won’t take too long now. In fact, there goes Jupiter.
RAY: These signs and planets all seem to be on different properties. How did you guys coordinate that?
KEVIN: All of the sites are on private property. I and other community leaders went down the road and talked to people, and in some cases, of course, the planets have slightly elliptical orbits, so there’s a little bit of wiggle room; you have the left side of the road, and the right side of the road, so we had some options, and there was always a land owner that said, “Sure!” The planets are all 55 feet off from the center line of the road to the right or left. Various sites have changed ownership over the course of time. No issues, I think it’s something everybody in the county appreciates.
JEFF: We’re now passing into the town of Westfield, Maine. So be on the lookout for Saturn coming up on our left.
RAY: And there it is! Someone made a cute little park with a bench around Saturn. And there’s Saturn’s moon, Titan, on a pole maybe 20 feet or so away from Saturn.
JEFF: From here there’s going to be a lot more space between planets. We’re now passing through the town of Mars Hill.
RAY: The irony isn’t lost on me that the planet Mars couldn’t be placed in this town because they were sticking to the proper scale.
JEFF: Next is the town of Blaine. Now crossing into Bridgewater. And coming up on our left…
RAY: (SNICKERING) I already see it by a little flower bed and bench.
RAY: Right there, Jeff… I see Uranus.
JEFF: Grow up, Ray! Okay, yeah, it’s hard to resist. I get it. Still, all of the models look like they’re in good shape. Kevin, has there been any problems with vandalism or anything like that?
KEVIN: We’ve had no real vandalism to speak of. I think some people tried to crawl up the post of Saturn’s moon, Titan, and bent the post and I had to replace that once upon a time. I have a moon on Jupiter that we still need to replace. It’s either fallen apart or somebody but a bullet into it or something.
RAY: Kevin explained to us that various planets are often coming down for repairs, repainting, or in some cases the landowners might be building out their parking lots and need to temporarily take down the models until that’s finished. But they all get put back into place eventually.
JEFF: Heading further south on Route 1 here we’re passing the town of Monticello, and on into Littleton, Maine. And up here on the right should be…
RAY: I see Neptune! There’s the brown sign and the bluish planet right in front of a small farm field.
JEFF: From here we need to drive all the way down to Houlton, Maine, just about where Route 1 meets Interstate 95. Make sure your seatbelt is secure, Ray, because this ride is about to get controversial.
RAY: Why is that?
JEFF: Because the end of our forty-mile journey will be Pluto.
RAY: Ohhhh I get it. Kevin McCartney said this model was finished in 2003.
RAY: Okay… let me grab my phone and Google something here… okay… looking it up. AH! Back in August of 2006, the International Astronomical Union, or IAU, officially downgraded the status of Pluto to that of a “dwarf planet.” So do they have to take this final model down?
KEVIN: Oh, when that decision was reached, I knew nothing about the on-going debate at the time, and all of a sudden me and my office at the university, I got deluged by a dozen or more phone calls in very quick order from press internationally asking, “What are you going to do about Pluto now that Pluto is no longer a planet.”
JEFF: 2006 was also the year that the New Horizons spacecraft was launched with a six-month recon mission to Pluto. So Kevin decided the now-dwarf planet could stay where it is, but a second Pluto was added at 33 astronomical units from the sun because that’s where New Horizons was going to meet Pluto.
RAY: Because Pluto has a more elliptical orbit than the other planets.
JEFF: Right. So now we have two Plutos… but no matter what you label it, I sleep better at night thinking of it as a small planet. And that brings to the end of our intragalactic 40-mile odyssey.
RAY: And what did this whole project cost to build and maintain? According to Kevin McCartney it cost nothing. Everything was donated, built, and maintained by volunteers. So we’ve now covered 93 million miles in just over 10 minutes. That’s not bad!
JEFF: And travelling well in excess of the speed of light for most of it.
RAY: If we’re scaling speed, then yes.
JEFF: This Maine model is the second largest Solar System model in the world. The first biggest is in Sweden, but those who have seen both seem to like Maine’s better because of its subtlety.
RAY: If we weren’t paying close attention, it would be easy to drive right by some of the markers.
JEFF: Still, I love when people look at their community and decide to make something different and interesting. Something that others talk about. If you happen to pass a planet along this road, it may force you to ask questions and maybe marvel a bit at the scale of it all. Think about it… everyone you’ve ever known or ever will know, all live on this tiny fragile ball about the size of a softball near a car dealership on Route 1 in Presque Isle, Maine.
RAY: And every legend we’ve ever covered is in a small section of that softball-sized planet. (PAUSE) I suddenly feel pretty small.
JEFF: I get it. But you’ll always take up a big space in my heart, Ray.
JEFF: You know who else takes up a big space in our hearts?
RAY: That would be our patreon patrons! For just $3 bucks per month these folks get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. Just head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends and sign up.
JEFF: We’d like to thank Professor Kevin McCartney from the University of Maine at Presque Isle for riding along with us this week, and of course our theme music is by John Judd.
RAY: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.