Cities embrace space when the solar system comes to town

Mid-Columbia is being transformed into an 80-mile scale replica of the solar system, one planetary orbit at a time.

The ambitious project promotes science education and tourism by placing orbital markers representing each of the nine major planets (Pluto is included) in orbit around a 40-foot sculpture of the sun at the Reach Museum in Richland.

It’s not nothing.

The scaled distance between the sun and Pluto is about 40 miles (and an average of 3.7 billion miles in reality.) At this scale, Pluto’s elliptical orbit passes near Sunnyside, Othello, White Bluffs, Prescott, Stanfield and Boardman.

Decades of craftsmanship

The Hanford Reach Solar System is the brainchild of Trevor Macduff, a science professor at Richland who began thinking about a regional model solar system during a professional development program over 20 years ago.

It started to take shape in 2011 when he was part of the Three Rivers HomeLink team that created a STEM program. He was looking for big projects that would engage students. He’s laughing now, but at the time he thought it would take two years to get the word out and build the project.

It took a while, but it eventually found takers in Richland, which at the time was preparing to build the Reach Museum on a spot overlooking the Columbia River and Bateman Island in the Wye.

Based on its scale, the sun would be at the Reach and Pluto would be at the White Bluffs boat launch.

Sunset

The sun, consisting of a pair of 40-foot north-south facing arches, was set up on the lawn with its own stage. It has proven a popular spot for weddings and other gatherings. It was even briefly a gathering place for the homeless during the pandemic, until authorities cut the power.

An orbital marker representing Saturn sits near the USS Triton Sail Park in northern Richland. It is one of a growing number of planets orbiting a scale replica of the Sun at the Reach Museum. (Photo by Wendy Culverwell)

Once the sun was up, Macduff began looking to install markers along the Kennewick, Pasco and Richland walking trails. The trails point away from the sun and are well traveled, making them accessible to visitors.

The land marker is about a mile away, near the Wye boat launch, according to the scaled distance. Mars and Venus have not seen the light of day, but there is a marker for Jupiter at the northern end of Richland’s Howard Amon Park and for Saturn at the USS Triton Sailing Park, overlooking the river north of Richland near the harbor of Benton.

He is working to get permission from the Army Corps of Engineers to install similar markers in Kennewick and Pasco, where the federal agency controls what can be installed along the waterfronts.

Benton City installed Uranus in 2021. Prosser plans to install Neptune by September.

Macduff welcomes the duplication. If West Richland wants a Saturn, great.

The planet’s orbit passes Leona Libby Middle School and near Yoke’s Fresh Market. Macduff is willing to fudge locations slightly if that means placing markers in places where they can be visited and not in anonymous places hidden in fields.

“If you have 10 Jupiters or six Plutos, you have an idea of ​​what the orbits look like,” he said.

Each orbital beacon has a basalt base with Corten steel arcs and a stainless steel explanatory plaque. Sites are given and it costs around $5,000 to install each marker.

His students partnered with artists to design sculptures representing each planet. He asked his students to think about what distinguishes each planet. He remembers students drawing a blank for Earth, then settling on DNA, which was incorporated into the design of the statue.

“It was pleasantly impressive to see all the great ideas,” he said.

The pandemic slowed down but did not stop work. Macduff expected to start out in the sun and make his way with markers at intervals along the riverside fairways of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco.

Leaning on Uranus

He planned to approach Benton City, which lies in the orbital path of the ice giant Uranus, with some dread.

Uranus, for the Greek sky god Ouranos, is pronounced with a short “a” sound, or yur-a-nus.

Macduff spent enough time with college kids to know that he would inevitably receive the long “a” treatment and be pronounced like the body part, “your-anus.”

Macduff made a presentation at a Rotary meeting and met with Benton City Mayor Linda Lehman. She wanted to know how Benton City could participate. He told her about Uranus. She loved it, he recalls.

The Benton City Revitalization Agency dedicated the Uranus marker in 2021 — amid the pandemic — on a walking path near 14th Street. The facility includes a user-friendly patio and explanatory displays.

Residents of Benton City have pored over the tough-a pronunciation with plenty of wink jokes.

There were promotional T-shirts and messages like “I saw Uranus in Benton City” and “Looking for Uranus? It’s in Benton City. The Uranus marker is noted on Google Maps.

Macduff credits the mayor with leading the way. The results exceeded his expectations.

“She just kissed him,” he said. “I just enjoyed the Benton City moxie for the kiss.”

The planet’s orbit mostly crosses sparsely populated areas, but it pinches Finley to the east near Hover Park in unincorporated Benton County.

Richland followed with three planets, funded by a grant and supported by the Parks Department. Macduff credits Joe Schiessl, then Richland Parks and Public Facilities Manager, for suggesting the basalt/Corten metal marker design.

A concrete marker would age, crack and become unsightly. The cracks in the basalt pillars look perfectly natural. The steel rusts but the Corten arches skate nicely.

Prosser touches Neptune

Prosser was the next to jump on the planetary bandwagon, thanks to a commercial connection with Benton City.

Dakota Renz, an insurance agent and member of the Leadership Prosser Class of 2022, learned about the Solar System Project through her involvement with the Benton City Chamber of Commerce.

Leadership groups typically adopt a community project during their year together. Prosser’s current ruling class was tired of pandemic restrictions. He wanted to leave an unusual and memorable mark on the community, Renz said.

And so Project Neptune, Prosser’s attempt to host a marker for the eighth planet in the solar system, was born with Renz at the helm. He expects to share the excitement that Benton City has built around Uranus.

“When we first started setting it up in Prosser, there was so much behind it. It promotes STEM education. Benton City has science classes, geocaching. It really is a tourist feature,” a- he declared.

Project Neptune raised $12,000 to install the orbital marker at a site in the Prosser Wine and Food Village, the site provided by the Port of Benton. Renz expects to complete construction by September.

Just as Benton City embraced Uranus, Prosser embraced Neptune, the god of the sea. The marker and displays will eventually be surrounded by an actual Neptune-themed park. The city is considering a wading pool or even a lazy river.

Find locations for the rest of the planets

Macduff has big plans for the remaining planets and the rest of Mid-Columbia circled by Pluto’s orbit.

The Parkway’s Richland Players Theater is considering a Jupiter marker.

Macduff has identified two spots for Mars in Kennewick, one at the Edison Street boat launch and the other at Vista Field, the Kennewick Harbor redevelopment project now ready for builders.

The solar array will be too large to cover all the planets in a single day, but as more orbits are added there will be more opportunities to create events and activities.

A series of Jupiters could form the basis of a cycle route. A fun race from Earth to the Sun could illustrate the vastness of space.

Running it in eight minutes or less is equivalent to traveling faster than the speed of light, as it takes real light about 8 minutes and 20 seconds to travel the actual 93 million kilometers between the sun and Earth.

labor of love

Project Planet has been a labor of love with key supporters along the way. As momentum builds, Macduff is looking to create a support network to help. He is looking for help updating the website, creating an interactive map and other tasks.

He created Silas Education, a non-profit organization, to move the project forward and eventually evolve into a professional development organization dedicated to edifying and celebrating local teachers.

He holds one of his first major events on September 14, when he hosts a formal teachers’ dinner with Richland astronaut Kayla Barron.

Barron, like Macduff, is a graduate of Richland High School and will spend the day visiting area students, including Macduff’s class at River’s Edge High School.

Macduff hopes to turn Silas into a full-time retirement job. For now, he is pursuing the solar system project alongside his work as a teacher and his obligations to his extended family and church.

“I love it, but I’m trying to make it something more,” he said.

Contact Macduff and donate through PayPal at silaseducation.org.

Arline J. Mercier