The world’s largest scale model stretches for 40 miles.

PRESQUE ISLE – Zipping along U.S. 1, it’s easy to overlook planet Mars. After all, it’s only 3 inches in diameter, located atop a pole next to the “Welcome to Presque Isle” sign.

But it’s much harder to miss Jupiter, which is 5 feet in diameter and weighs close to a ton, next to a potato field.

What motorists see unfolding on a stretch of a highway through the rolling farm country of northern Maine is what’s billed as the world’s largest scale model of the solar system.

The solar system, which will be dedicated on June 14, was a labor of love completed over four years with volunteers and a budget of zero. The ingredients necessary to make the project a reality included a community’s can-do attitude and inspiration of an eccentric professor.

“There’s a sense of pride,” said Kevin McCartney, a geology professor at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. “You could not build something like this in 99.9 percent of the United States.”

The center of this solar system is the university where McCartney works. Driving south on U.S. 1, it ends 40 miles later with tiny Pluto mounted on the wall of a visitor information center in Houlton.

In this solar system, you’d be driving at the speed of light at 7 mph. Of course, that would be ill-advised on a two-lane highway. It would take eight minutes to travel from the sun to Earth.

Because the planets were built to scale, it can be something of a game of hide and seek to find the smaller ones.

Earth, which is a bit larger than a softball, is located next to the Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge sign at Percy’s Auto Sales. Venus, at 5 inches in diameter, is in a motel parking lot. Mercury, at 2 inches, is in a garden by the highway.

Pluto, the smallest, is an inch in diameter.

Some planets are surrounded by moons – seven altogether – most of which are attached to metal rods that are stuck in the ground.

“The larger planets really make a statement. The small ones are hard to locate,” said Tom Cote, an art instructor at Limestone Community School who got students to help paint Jupiter.

Cote supervised students from kindergarten to high school who painted the massive planet over a six-month period.

The students pored over photographs from NASA and mixed acrylic paints to get the hues of pink, orange and red, said Jacinda St. Pierre, a high school junior.

“In the end, it was quite an accomplishment to finish it and have it look as good as it did,” the 17-year-old said.

Others pitched in across Aroostook County, which has only 73,000 residents despite being the largest county east of the Mississippi and having more land than Rhode Island and Connecticut combined.

As the formal dedication nears, residents who gave life to the project look upon it as a labor of love with satisfaction. But many of them treated McCartney with a healthy dose of skepticism at first.

“I, and a lot of other people, thought he was whacked,” said Scott Norton, general manager of Percy’s Auto Sales.

McCartney convinced instructors and students at the Caribou Regional Applied Technology Center to design and weld the largest planets. Students from the school’s auto body shop added their fiberglass expertise.

The project will be formally completed when Uranus is placed on its base in the town of Bridgewater on June 13, the day before Sen. Susan Collins and other dignitaries are expected for the dedication ceremony.

Other volunteers loaded the completed planets onto gooseneck trailers to haul them to schools to be painted. A couple of farmers and businesses donated land for the planets, and volunteers built the concrete pads and parking lots for Saturn and Jupiter. The finishing touch was landscaping.

At times, McCartney said it was like herding squirrels. But he said the community’s strong work ethic got the job done, overcoming significant obstacles, not the least of which was an empty bank account.

In the end, the community has a set of planets built to withstand 20 years of harsh weather with minimal maintenance. The only expenses were a couple of one-dollar leases for property.

“Problems are things to be solved,” McCartney said. “Up here in a rural area, everyone is a problem solver.”



On the Net:

Solar System Model http://www.umpi.maine.edu/info/nmms/solar/index.htm

AP-ES-05-26-03 1312EDT



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