COMING SOON: Scale model solar system that stretches across Kansas!

HAYS, KS -- Fort Hays State University announced an ambitious plan Saturday to build a scale model of the solar system that would use the dome of the Sternberg Museum of Natural History as the sun.

Dr. Edward H. Hammond, FHSU president, explained that the plan calls for the creation of models of each of the planets, and possibly comets and asteroids, placed at sites that would represent their relative orbits. With the Sternberg Museum dome representing the sun, the model planets will be built to scale and located at distances from Hays that will represent proportionately the distance of their orbits from the sun. For example, Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, will be the size of a basketball and its orbit would pass through the Hays Wal-Mart Super Center, just a short drive from the museum, The orbit of Halley's Comet, no bigger than a grain of sand, would pass near Tomanek Hall on the FHSU campus, roughly three miles from the Sternberg Museum. Jupiter, the largest of the planets, would be a globe 22 feet in diameter that would be located somewhere near Russell. Pluto, the most distant planet, would be the size of a softball and would be located near Topeka.

"This is a terribly busy place to hold an unveiling," Hammond said as swarms of visitors milled past the site of the solar system announcement to enter the Sternberg Museum for a last chance to see "A T.rex Named Sue."

"However," he continued, "We thought this was the perfect place and the perfect time to unveil our plans for the Kansas Solar System. Thanks to Sue, the Sternberg Museum has seemed like the center of the universe to more than 100,000 visitors who have marveled at this exhibit of the largest, most complete and best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex ever found."

Just like the Sternberg Museum itself, the Kansas Solar System will provide both education and entertainment. "In addition to drawing attention to the Sternberg Museum, the solar system project will provide a link for travelers to other museums or attractions in Kansas," the president said. "Several economic development directors from around the state are highly supportive of the project. Other scale model tourist attractions of space exist across the country, but this will be by far the largest in the nation. These tourist attractions have become very popular."

The project is the brainchild of Dr. Timothy Folkerts, assistant professor of physics at FHSU.

During the unveiling of a sign announcing the project on Saturday morning just outside the Sternberg Museum, Folkerts emphasized that the project was still in its infancy. He said the inspiration for the project originated from the convergence of two ideas -- an assignment he gave to his class to build scale solar systems, and the similarity of the Sternberg Museum dome to a setting sun.

"We knew the Sternberg Museum was important," Folkerts said, "but now we recognize that it is truly the center of our whole solar system. Where else could you visit the whole solar system in one day?"

"This Kansas Solar System project grew out of a desire to show FHSU students the reality of the relative smallness of the planets, and the great distances between them. No book or movie can convey this concept like a scale model."

Folkerts' students found in their research that the Kansas Solar System presents a 20,000,000:1 scale model of the solar system, true to scale in both the sizes of the planets and the distances between them. Interest has been spreading across campus, as well. When Dr. Germaine Taggart, assistant professor of teacher education in FHSU's College of Education, learned of the project, she got her students involved in developing activity books for children and a solar system curriculum for area schools. A Web site was created detailing the project and the school curriculum will eventually be posted to the site at .

Saturday was Astronomy Day, and the president of the FHSU Astronomy Club, Beloit senior Eric Gourley, talked about the activities the club was offering to the public throughout the day on Saturday. Those activities included allowing the public to observe sunspots through solar-safe telescopes outside the Sternberg Museum.

In addition to the sign near the museum, signs also have been placed near Tomanek Hall on the FHSU campus, in the Hays Wal-Mart Supercenter parking lot, and at the Humane Society of the High Plains on Old U.S. 40 east of Hays. During the unveiling ceremony, Folkerts shared some interesting facts about the universe. He introduced Mary Ann Thompson, a humane society board member, and thanked both the humane society and Wal-Mart for allowing Kansas Solar System signs to be erected at their respective locations.

The colorful signs give interesting facts about features of the solar system and information about how to become involved in the Kansas Solar System project. The sign near the Sternberg Museum gives information about the sun, the Tomanek Hall sign tells about Halley's Comet, the Wal-Mart sign describes Mercury and the humane society sign provides facts about the planet Earth.

To find out more or to get involved, call Folkerts at (785) 628-4501. Plans are under way to complete the accurate scale model of the solar system by the summer of 2002.

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