Most of us have experienced a scale model solar system. A new one with a different spin will open up May 1 on Bainbridge Island. To find the Sun and planets in this solar system, you’ll have to conduct a successful geocache hunt.
“Everybody who does it can collect the entire set of planets and custom stamps in a passport book, but the trick is, they have to go to each planet to do it,” said Erica Saint Clair, proprietor of Rosie Research, which creates fun science learning adventures for kids and families. Saint Clair also leads the BP Astro Kids education program of the Battle Point Astronomical Association (BPAA). It was through the latter that the idea for the geocache scaled solar system model came about.
About a year ago the BP Astro Kids made solar systems on a string, but it was a challenge to create an exercise that represented both the proper sizes of planets relative to each other, as well as the scale of the distances between them at those sizes. The BPAA children’s librarian suggested just making an island-wide solar system using geocaching. Saint Clair originally laughed at the idea—thinking that’ll be easy!—then rolled up her sleeves and got to work. Now it’s about to go live. The Sun is about five feet in diameter in this solar system.
“It fits really well on the island, and it gives a really good perspective for people about the size of our solar system,” Saint Clair said.
“You can walk downtown Winslow and go through our terrestrial planets, and then Jupiter and Saturn and the other guys are a little further away,” she added. “You definitely need a car for Pluto because it’s the other end of the island.”
The key piece of documentation for the hunt is the solar system passport. The passport includes information about the project and interesting facts about the Sun and each planet. Most importantly, it gives the coordinates of each of these objects. Go to Bainbridge Island, plug the coordinates into a GPS device—the map app on your smart phone will do, but there are also special geocaching apps—and the search is on! At each spot geocachers with a good eye will find a hidden treasure chest with a special stamp for their passport—that’s how you’ll prove you’ve been there. Some local businesses will be handing out the passports, and some are offering prizes like ice cream or pizza for those who collect certain stamps.
“It’s not only a geocache hunt, it’s also a fun afternoon activity with treats,” Saint Clair said.
Geocachers who visit every planet can bring their passport to one of the monthly BP Astro Kids events and receive a colorful completer’s patch as the reward for their dedicated pursuit of scientific knowledge.
Saint Clair said that a goal helps motivate many kids to finish a project like this; her own daughters are the user testers for many of her projects, and it works on them! She’s hoping that the challenge of the hunt will inspire interest in the project.
Challenge of scale modeling
There are a lot of big numbers in astronomy, and Saint Clair said that’s a challenge for this sort of endeavor.
“It’s really difficult to scale a model, because either the sizes are so unfathomable or the distances are so unfathomable, and to bring one into focus inherently blurs the other,” she said. She hopes that using informative passport books will help convey more information that might not work at the scale of the model.
The Battle Point Astronomical Association will hold an Astronomy Day celebration at Battle Point Park on Bainbridge Island from 3 p.m. until 9 p.m. this Saturday, April 29. Saint Clair said kids and families can pick up their passports and take a solar system tour that day in preparation for the solar system geocache hunt going live on Monday.
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Podcast of our interview with Erica Saint Clair: