What is a Planet Walk?
A planet walk is a public, walkable scale-model of the solar system designed to inspire awe and wonder at the scale of the Universe, and our place within it. Each planet in our Solar System, plus the Sun, are represented by scaled models at stations along the walk. Colorful and informative posters at each station highlight recent discoveries and interesting facts that promote curiosity about what we see in the sky above us.
The original planet walk, named the Sagan Planet Walk after the famous astronomer Carl Sagan (creator of ‘Cosmos’), was conceived and built in 1997 by individuals from the Sciencenter and Cornell University, both situated in Ithaca, New York. Initially consisting of ten stations (which included the Sun, eight planets, and Pluto), the Sagan Planet Walk extends 1.2 kilometers from Ithaca’s downtown tourism district to the Sciencenter, a local science museum.
The Sagan Planet Walk begins with the Sun, where a two-meter-tall granite obelisk signifies the largest and most significant body in our solar system. The remaining planets are then spaced at their appropriate distances from the Sun. A poster on each obelisk highlights interesting facts and spacecraft images that truly inspire a sense of wonder as to the secrets being revealed by our celestial neighbors. At the top of each obelisk a 28-centimeter circle, cut out of the stone, represents the size of the Sun at a 1:5 billion scale, while a smaller hole is cut for each planet. Located in the center of The Commons, a pedestrian area in the heart of downtown Ithaca, the obelisk stands out as a prominent piece of public art and is a key attraction for tourists and residents of the city.
As part of the walk, visitors can download a guidebook titled: “Passport to the Solar System”, or buy it from local vendors. Along their trek, they can also listen to an audio cell-phone tour narrated by Bill Nye, “The Science Guy” by dialing a toll-free number.
The Sagan Planet Walk was then updated in 2016, when a team of Cornell scientists (led by Dr. Alexander Hayes) included the discoveries made by spacecraft since the initial opening of the exhibition two decades prior. QR-codes on each sign now link visitors to a Cornell-run website featuring current information about each planet and their moons, along with high-resolution images.
Where and What Would a Winnipeg Planet Walk Include?
The Planet Walk that we propose to design and build in Winnipeg will begin at True North Square, and terminate in front of the MTS Centre. This provides the base scale for the Winnipeg Planet Walk to be 13.5 billion times smaller than our own Solar System, and a factor of ~3 smaller than the Sagan Planet Walk in Ithaca. This is one possible design, of which many iterations are possible. However, the choice of True North Square as our starting points provides the opportunity for both a public work of art in a high traffic area, but also a simple, approachable, and free science exhibition.
The walk begins with a monument for the Sun, with what will be a 10-centimeter diameter carving (to be designed) at the top that represents the Sun’s scaled size. Obelisks were chosen for the Sagan Planet Walk as they represent ancient forms of navigation for people in desert environments (the top of the obelisk pointed to a particular star at a particular time of year). To customize the walk to Winnipeg, one alternative design could instead have inuksuks, monuments that also help navigate in the Arctic (also a ‘desert’). A placard for the Sun that describes the properties and interesting pieces of information of our star would then be affixed to the front of the monument. These placards have been recently updated for the Sagan Planet Walk and will be modified with a design specific to Winnipeg. On the reverse of the monument, another identical placard in French would be provided.
The remainder of the Planet Walk is then scaled, according to the semi-major axis of the orbit of each major planet, where each station is located an appropriate distance away from the Sun’s monument (442 meters total). Each station is designed, where possible, to also correspond to a major attraction or building. For example, the stations for Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto can all be placed outside entrances to the MTS Centre, while the remainder of the monuments would all be located within True North Square.
Each planet then has a similar monument to the Sun that is fastened with a similar placard. At the top of each monument, the same 10-centimeter carving representative of the Sun is shown. However, within the carving, a 3D-printed, scaled model of each planet and their moons will be embedded to highlight the scale of each planet on the walk. In this configuration, the model for the Earth is only 0.9 millimeters in diameter!
On each sign, a QR-code is in the bottom left corner. These can be scanned by any smart phone, where the individual will be taken to a Cornell-run website. This website is brand-new and was recently updated with the newest knowledge that we have of everything in our Solar System that have been acquired by unmanned spacecraft. The website also contains all the spacecraft images that are publicly available, along with a list of each unmanned spacecraft mission and the discoveries that each made. This unique website is novel in the fact that it condenses a dizzying amount of information into one cohesive story for each body.
The Sagan Planet Walk also includes “Passports to the Solar System,” and a guided audio cell phone tour. Both these features will be easily incorporated into the Winnipeg Planet Walk. This will be accomplished using a mobile app that will be free to download and contain a digital version of the passports. The audio tour is an optional addition to the planet walk, but would include 1-minute clips for each station, like the Sagan Planet Walk.
Why Planet Walk in Winnipeg?
The idea for a Planet Walk in Winnipeg was sparked during the re-design of the Sagan Planet Walk in 2016 at Cornell. It dawned on some of us that such a simple concept can and should be extended elsewhere. As planetary scientists, it was also inspiring to see so many ground-breaking discoveries presented to the public in such a simple, beautiful, and comprehensible way.
While the internet is free, the breadth of what we know about the Cosmos is so vast that it is easy to get lost. The city of Winnipeg can make science more available to young people through a Planet Walk by providing key information in an engaging format, one that encourages further curiosity. This, in fact, is the very thing that motivated the original Carl Sagan Planet Walk. The addition of easily-scanned QR-codes offers the opportunity to anyone to indulge and learn more about oceans on the moons of Jupiter, hydrocarbon lakes and seas on Titan, lava flows that blanket Venus, and what the mysterious rings of Saturn are made of.
Having grown up in Winnipeg, I recognized the opportunity to combine science, art, and education in a compelling way that would enhance the downtown area and provide a significant attraction for tourists as well as a point of pride for residents. As a model for what we can do in Winnipeg, the Sagan Planet Walk in Ithaca has been highly successful. By locating these monuments within True North Square, and along the walk to the MTS Centre, we can provide monuments that are both beautiful works of art, and tools for those interested in learning more about science. Perhaps one person who just went to the square to watch a Jets game can be inspired by these monuments to learn more about the Cosmos, and science in general.
Further, the potential to increase tourism revenue is great. Local businesses around the Sagan Planet Walk in Ithaca benefit from stations being there, as people who embark on the walk often stop at stores, restaurants, or public buildings along the way. People also regularly travel from far away to experience the Planet Walk, bringing added revenue to the city that it otherwise would not have. Lastly, many school classes regularly use it, and the accompanying educational materials, as a free field trip. The locations of where monuments are placed is highly flexible, and can be placed to take advantage of places of interest within the new city center.