For most, travelling to the outer reaches of the solar system is a distant dream. But through the Sagan Planet Walk, organized by the Cornell Society of Physics Students, a tour of all the planets is still possible. The event, attended by over a 100 Ithacans, took place on Saturday.
The walk follows 11 monolithic pillars placed along a 0.73 mile path, beginning with one depicting the Sun in the center of the Ithaca Commons and ends with Pluto at Ithaca Sciencenter. Each obelisk contains a circular frame with a small hole, the size of which depicts the planet’s size relative to the Sun. The distances between these celestial bodies is scaled to be five billionths of their actual value.
A key highlight is the obelisk depicting the asteroid belt, at the base of which is the world’s only unguarded meteorite. The exhibition is also the longest in the world, with a pillar depicting the closest star to the Sun, Alpha Centauri, located in Hilo, Hawaii, nearly 5,000 miles away. In 2015, it was decided that the walk would be expanded to include an obelisk depicting the exoplanet Kepler-37d on the moon, nearly 238,900 miles away, though this is yet to be completed.
Julia Kruk ’18, outreach chair for Cornell SPS, believes that such events are necessary to keep the general public engaged with important advancements in space exploration. She also emphasized that exhibitions like these that take place outside the classroom help motivate children to grow up and contribute to the fields of engineering and astronomy.
“This event is important to me because I didn’t find my love for physics through academic work. I actually painted for the majority of my life and was an art student in midtown Manhattan. I started developing an interest in physics by visiting museums, science exhibits and through science popularizers like Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson,” Kruk said.
According to Kruk, the event also brings together those with established backgrounds in astronomy and acts as a forum at which they can informally share ideas.
“A person came up to us as the event was ending and expressed interest in what we were doing. We discussed everything from atmospheric pressure on Venus to the upcoming announcement from LIGO and he told us that he was actually going back to school to take classes in physics and chemistry because he wanted to know more. He was passionate about it and excited by all the things we discussed. This was exactly what the event was meant to do, inspire, encourage and excite people about science,” Kruk said.
The walk is also designed to celebrate the contributions of Prof. Carl Sagan, astronomy, who published over 600 papers and was responsible for, among other achievements, assembling the golden records on the voyager probes that contain sounds and images of life on Earth.
“Carl Sagan was a brilliant astronomer and cosmologist, but what immortalized him in our culture was his ability to explain the brilliant and beautiful aspects of science to people who had no technical experience in it at all,” Kruk said. “He inspired so many to pursue fields in science and mathematics and opened a whole new world of knowledge to hundreds of people who believed it was out of their reach.”
Kruk also emphasized that the walk was an opportunity to contemplate the future of space exploration.
“I believe that the next few decades will change the way we view space from something cold, dark and distant, to something accessible,” Kruk said.
With organizations like NASA and the European Space Agency taking a step back from manned missions and focussing on perfecting the use of automation, private companies like Deep Blue and SpaceX are stepping in to fill this gap.
“I can envision a trip beyond the thermosphere, one of the last layers in the atmosphere, to be viewed in much the same way as we view roller coasters now, or plane rides,” Kruk said. “As to whether we’ll be able to go further than the moon in large numbers, I think we still have a long way to go. However, NASA has been developing machines that resemble trailer trucks for the moon for quite some time now, so we might be looking at a research base popping up fairly soon.”