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Caution, Planets Ahead

The world's largest (maybe) 9-planet solar system model goes up along Route 1 in northern Maine

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Beginning about 4.5 billion years ago, the theory goes, a galactic cloud of interstellar gas and dust collapsed and ignited in a blaze of thermonuclear fusion to create our Sun. Swirling around that fireball were particles that gathered into spherical clumps, whose gravitational fields attracted smaller clumps, and so on, eventually creating the four terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) and the four gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune), with Pluto, that icy enigma, playing at the outskirts. All told, cosmologists say, it took 100 million years for the solar system to take shape.

Of course, you can do the job much faster if you use fiberglass—provided, as Kevin McCartney is discovering, you have lots of help. McCartney, 48, a professor of geology at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and director of the Northern Maine Museum of Science, is the man behind one of the world’s largest scale models of the solar system. When completed this spring, it will stretch along the northernmost reaches of U.S. Route 1, from the 50-foot Sun inside Presque Isle’s museum to the one-inch Pluto and its half-inch moon, Charon, mounted on the wall of the tourist information center 40 miles away in Houlton. In between, at precisely calibrated intervals, the other eight planets will rest atop ten-foot steel posts—heavenly roadside attractions in parking lots and farm plots in northern Maine’s remote Aroostook County, which juts so deeply into Canada that many residents grow up speaking French as a second language.

Maybe four years is a long time to set up nine painted spheres, but McCartney has used only volunteer labor and donated materials. Total funding for his project: zero. He planned it that way, he says: "We’ve had a dozen phone calls in the last year, saying, ‘This is great. We were going to do the same thing. Where did you get the money?’ The answer is, we never had any thought of money. We knew we couldn’t get it."

I first spot the Maine Solar System Model through the car windshield. I’m on the road to catch the raising of Saturn. It’s late October, and McCartney is racing the calendar to install the planet before the snow flies. In this awkward, in-between time of year in the Pine Tree State’s northernmost county (which is larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined), the hills appear rather bleak; the potato harvest has been in for a few weeks, leaving brown, barren fields. Forget any picturesque notions of rocky coasts, quaint cottages and $10 lobster rolls. This is hard country, where folks endure cruel winters with a can-do attitude. I drive past poor but tidy homes; past potato barns built into the earth like dugouts; past Littleton, Monticello, Bridgewater and Mars Hill (pure coincidence—the celestial Mars rests about eight miles north of Mars Hill); past farm fields and over a long hill. And suddenly Saturn hovers there.

Suspended from a crane and being lowered gingerly onto its post, the planet is a four and a half foot orange orb, painted with curling stripes, tilted on an axis 26 degrees from the vertical and sporting a set of steel mesh rings. It weighs 1,200 pounds.

Several dozen people are on hand to see the ringed giant rise. Men in suits and ties mingle with laborers in baseball caps and students from Caribou Tech Center, who built the planet’s frame. Distinctive in a long mustache-less beard, white trousers, white work shirt and white Greek fisherman’s cap, McCartney buzzes through the crowd, issuing commands. "Early on I used to say this project’s going to have a thousand and one problems. But I think it’s going to have a thousand and one solutions," McCartney says. "Well, we’ve had a thousand and one problems. We really have." Saturn, for instance. Only after the school group that painted the planet put down their brushes did the students learn that the image provided them by NASA was a bit too purple. So they repainted it in proper saturnine oranges.

McCartney, whose academic career brought him to Maine 15 years ago from Florida, is a master of the unlikely project. He assembled the Northern Maine Museum of Science from scratch, with volunteer help and, as usual, no funding. A few of the display cases are fashioned from wood fished out of a trash bin. A diorama depicting sea life more than 400 million years ago is on loan from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Trained as a paleontologist, McCartney collects model airplanes and images of Abraham Lincoln. At their 1913 Arts and Crafts house in Caribou, he and his wife, Kate, have more than 250 antique laundry irons.

But the solar system possesses him now. "My neck is stuck way out on this project," McCartney says of his model. "I’m sort of the instigator. People have worked very, very hard."

Just now, newspaper ad sales manager Jim Berry is drilling a hole in Saturn’s post and remembering his first encounter with McCartney at a Kiwanis Club meeting. "I went home that night and said to my wife, ‘I met this guy today. He’s a wacko. You can’t believe what he’s going to try to do.’ " When he got up the next morning he said, "Wait a minute. This is a great idea. I’ve got to get involved in this. This is just too good to pass up."

McCartney has that effect on people; one day they think he’s crazy, the next day they’re painting Jupiter’s spot. His list of prominent "squirrels," as he inexplicably calls his volunteers, runs eight pages long. Add the anonymous students who worked on a planet here or a stanchion there, and McCartney estimates that more than 500 squirrels have pitched in so far. Perley Dean, a retired Presque Isle High School guidance counselor who wears a "Maine Potato Board" baseball cap, got the job of persuading several landowners that what was missing on their property was a planet. "Many of them don’t stay up late at night reading about the galaxy," Dean deadpans.

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