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Sunday, 29 May 2016

The Somerset Space Walk

The Somerset Space Walk is a 1/530,000,000-scale model of the Solar System, spread out along the 22.5 km length of the Bridgwater-to-Taunton canal. At the half-way point, the Sun is represented by a sphere approximately 2.6 metres in diameter, and as you walk along the towpath in either direction you come to models of each of the planets to the same scale. For example, Mercury is a stainless steel ball just 9 mm in diameter, around 110 metres from the Sun (Mercury’s orbit is elliptical – this distance represents the semi-major axis).

The main canal-side car park is located close to the northern (i.e. Bridgwater-side) model of Mars. I walked from there past Earth, Venus and Mercury to the Sun, and then past another Mercury, Venus and Earth to the Taunton-side Mars. That involves a total distance of just 860 metres. I then walked on another kilometre to Jupiter, before returning to the car and driving into Taunton, where I “finished” the trail at Pluto, 11.3 km from the Sun (the model dates from 1997, when Pluto was still counted as one of the planets). My photos above show the six planets I visited on the Taunton side of the Sun.

The model really does put “astronomical scales” into perspective. The picture below shows the relatively huge model of the Sun, with the hundred-times-smaller model of the Earth in the inset. The latter is a stainless steel sphere approximately 25 mm in diameter. On that scale, the International Space Station would be a mere 0.75 mm above the surface of the sphere. The Moon, which is the furthest anyone has travelled, would be just a metre away. The nearest star outside the Solar System, Alpha Centauri, would be about 77,000 km away – almost six times the diameter of the real Earth!
During the Second World War, the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal formed part of the “Taunton Stop Line”, another stretch of which I wrote about on Paul Jackson’s blog several years ago (see also Paul’s own post about the GHQ Line, which served a similar function further East). In the short distance I walked last week, I saw no fewer than three gun emplacements, all to different designs:


Colin Jones said...

Those models also demonstrate how ridiculous the idea of interstellar travel is. Even if it were possible to travel at the speed of light it would take FOUR YEARS to reach the nearest star. In the original Star Trek series the Enterprise is on a "five year mission" so at the speed of light that would be halfway to Alpha Centauri and back again !! Which means that the Enterprise and all the other Trek starships must be travelling at thousands of times the speed of light or they'd never get anywhere. Even if we could manage just one per cent of light speed it would take 150 seconds to reach the moon (compared to four days for Neil Armstrong) but 400 years to reach Alpha Centauri. Sadly this means that those sci-fi stories and films involving starships travelling to different planets in a vast galactic empire/federation will always remain mere fantasy :(

Andrew May said...

You're quite right, Colin. But fiction has always been demand-driven, not science-driven. In the 19th century, there was an enormously popular genre of "lost world" adventure novels, in which characters encountered strange and exotic creatures and civilizations in unexplored parts of Africa, South America etc. Then after those places were fully explored, there was still a huge audience demand for that kind of adventure, so authors carried on churning it out but transplanted the action to Mars, Venus etc. Unfortunately it quickly became clear that those planets were completely unsuitable for life, so they were effectively forced to write about travel to other star systems -- regardless of the feasibility, practicality or desirability of interstellar travel. It's just that writers needed a suitable venue for a perennially popular type of adventure story.

Colin Jones said...

Talking of spaceships, Andrew - I've just bought the latest Fortean Times and I never knew that "World Contact Day" was an annual event. I know the phrase because of the Carpenters' song "Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft" with the line "We declare World Contact Day" but I always assumed it was a one-off event organized by the international astronomy community or something. FT also has a feature asking why do alien spaceships always crash on Earth - an excellent question which had never occurred to me before !

Andrew May said...

I've seen the question posed on at least a couple of occasions before, but the answer in FT (that the aliens send all their "learner drivers" here) is an amusing and original one.

Unlike you I hadn't heard of World Contact Day, even as a one-off event - or if I had, it went in one ear and out the other (in fact I'd barely heard of Albert K. Bender, in whose obituary it was mentioned). It sounds like a very wacky idea!

Colin Jones said...

Just to be clear - the full (and very long) title of that Carpenters song was "Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft (The Official Anthem Of World Contact Day" which made me think that World Contact Day was some kind of big event if it had an "official anthem". It sounded like the kind of thing that Carl Sagan would organize - he believed the galaxy was full of alien civilisations.