Students enjoying the warm weather may have noticed a few additions to Middle Path — the planets of a model Solar System implemented by Kenyon’s Radio and Optical Astronomy Research Group (ROAR). Intended to educate and enthrall the community, the planets will remain on Middle Path through Friday.
In an interview with the Collegian, Professor of Physics Paula Turner went into detail about ROAR’s mission on campus: “It’s a zero-prerequisites research group. So we try to engage students in doing some astronomy research, learning about astronomy and doing outreach around astronomy,” she said. “First-year students can join it; they don’t have to be physics majors. It’s mostly physics majors, but there are a few non-science majors who have joined.” ROAR member Mae Hagelgans ’23 echoed Turner’s sentiment in an email to the Collegian: “Although we’re a research group, we all are here because we love to have fun with astronomy.” Turner described the many projects that ROAR participants have worked on, including presentations on pulsars and dark matter as well as being remote observers on the Green Bank Telescope. The organization is headed by Turner and her colleagues Associate Professors of Physics Leslie Wade and Madeline Wade.
The idea for the model Solar System began as a thought exercise — assuming the Sun is located in Old Kenyon Residence Hall, what would it look like to scale something as large as the Solar System to Middle Path? As the group discussed the potential details of implementing the model Solar System, the project became more and more concrete. “At that point, we decided, well, if we really wanted to build this, we should pick a scaling factor so that the planets are all scaled to each other in size, and the distances will scale to each other in size,” Turner said. The team exaggerated the sizes of the planets by a factor of 27 compared to the scaled distances between them to ensure that they would be large enough to be noticeable. The team’s scaling decisions resulted in what Turner referred to as a “beautiful coincidence” — Jupiter sits outside Ascension Hall and Saturn outside Ransom Hall. “That’s like, the two best planets in the two most traveled locations,” she said.
“We started building the Solar System back in spring 2022,” Hagelgans wrote. “The smaller planets were easy to come up with materials for once we established that the Earth [would be] the size of a baseball — but in this size scale, it meant that the larger gas giants would require some creative engineering.” A period of trial and error ensued, with the team attempting to fill large exercise balls with smaller ping pong balls, hoping the models would hold their shape. “This did not work well, hence why we have been trying to give away hundreds of ping pong balls along Middle Path for our Design-A-Planet contest,” Hagelgans said. The contest involved giving students paper bags filled with crayons and ping pong balls to be used to invent their own “planets.”
Ultimately, the model planets were constructed out of large styrofoam balls as well as smaller items like baseballs and racquetballs coated with truck bed liner, which makes them more or less impervious to weather, according to Turner. From there, students used reference images of the planets to try and paint the models as realistically as possible using a mixture of spray paints and acrylics — down to the smallest detail. “If you look at Saturn,” Turner said, “there’s a hexagonal storm at the North Pole.”
Another key element of the project is the signs placed next to the planets explaining some basic information about them. Since outreach is a key component of ROAR’s mission, it was important to spread the word. “We wrote facts about all the planets for the signs, and developed the social media aspect to advertise — @kenyonroar on Instagram!” Hagelgans wrote. The bulk of the construction process took place during the fall semester, and by the time the planets were ready to be displayed, there were only a few weeks left in the semester for students to enjoy them. “So we put it out for a couple of weeks and got permission to reinstall it for two weeks now,” Turner said. “It just felt like we put so much work into them that we wanted more people to see them.”
According to Turner, the primary goal of the project is to foster a sense of curiosity about the cosmos and to give the community something to enjoy: “We hope some school kids or teachers will be able to use them to some extent. I hope people get some joy out of it — as soon as we put Saturn up, we saw people coming by and taking selfies with it.”
For Hagelgans, this project had a decidedly personal undertone. “I was really excited about the implementation of this project because I am a Mount Vernon area native, and growing up, I didn’t see much astronomy within these rural parts of Ohio,” she said. “If I had seen something like this as a kid, I probably would’ve become interested in astronomy so much sooner than when I actually did in high school. So for me, it feels like giving back to my community and letting other people see the love that I and the rest of ROAR have for astronomy.”
With regard to the team responsible for seeing the project through, Turner had high praise: “There were 15 students who did an incredible job over the course of several weeks and took great care to make them look as good as they look.” she said. “This was a crazy thing that a bunch of science nerds got together, and we are very proud of the results.”