“Space is big,” wrote Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
While clearly true, this did not discourage astronomer John Shobbrook from Coonabarabran near Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. To “give students and tourists a feel for the vastness of space and the fragility of the tiny planets – especially planet Earth,” he proposed building a model of the Solar System.
I once attempted a one-twelfth scale model kit of a Vincent Black Shadow and recall complaining to a colleague that there were things I could not get quite right. He was a friend of Phil Irving’s, the Australian engineer who created the Vincent, and he said: “Don’t worry, neither could Phil.”
If a one-twelfth model was a challenge, imagine what a one-38 millionth model would be like. John Shobbrook’s suggestion was to use the huge 37-metre dome of the Anglo-Australian Telescope at the Observatory to represent the Sun, and to produce models of the planets to scale which could then be placed around Coonabarabran at the appropriate distances from the telescope. In the end, five approach roads were chosen to be decorated with altogether 24 fiberglass planets to make Solar System Drives.
All five drives lead to the Sun, represented by the huge Anglo-Australian Telescope dome at the observatory in the Warrumbungle Ranges 28 kilometres west of Coonabarabran. The real Sun is over 1.39 million kilometres wide and when scaled to the size of the telescope’s dome, Pluto is less than 200 kilometres away – and the size of a billiard ball. Of course it’s not a planet any more, having been demoted to the pitiful status of a dwarf planet, but it keeps its place out in western New South Wales. We’re loyal. Pluto, we’re with you.
Brochures and maps of the drive are available at the various tourist information centers along the roads, or if you’re interested in finding out more you can go to the website, www.solarsystemdrive.com . There is also an activity book targeted at primary school students to complete either in the car as they experience the drive or in the classroom with their teacher. Obviously, the focus of the World’s Largest Virtual Solar System Drive is tourism and education. But there’s more.
What you don’t get from reading about it on the web or on paper is that it is a lot of fun. If you are travelling on your bike at 100km/h along the Solar System Drive, you’d be virtually hurtling through space at a million kilometres per second – more than three times the speed of light. I have to admit I can’t even imagine that, but it’s an unusual challenge.
The Solar System Drive is a daytime experience. Visitors are encouraged to stop at each planet “in a safe manner, taking care when pulling off and back onto the roadway” as the ever-cautious tourist literature says. This is hardly a problem with the minimal traffic most of these roads get. Night-time experiences of the Solar System are on offer at various observatories located along the drive, too.
Coonabarabran is some five and a half hours north-west of Sydney. Siding Spring Observatory is only open during the day, between 9.30am and 4pm Monday to Friday and 10am to 2pm weekends and public holidays, but the sun shines all day. For more information, please contact the Coonabarabran Visitor Information Centre on 1800 242 881.
We recently took some test bikes up there for a run – ‘recently’ being before the time of the plague. There are several ways of reaching the Warrumbungles and we took one of the more scenic ones. The country had recently had its first serious rain for four or five years, so the ride through the greenery was a pure joy. Well, except when we passed an abattoir (meat packing factory for my American readers) which had been reactivated to handle the fresh supply of animals provided by the improved fodder. It’s amazing how far that smell can carry.
No ride is perfect, I guess, but at least this pungent odor signifies a return to prosperity.
Western New South Wales does not have much in the way of hills, but there are some and it’s always enjoyable to tackle the roads that lead through them. On the way to Siding Spring, the main attraction is the final few kilometres up into the Warrumbungles where you get to pass Earth, Venus and Mercury on the way. Make sure you look out for Mercury; it’s in the parking lot of the observatory.