02 May 2009

Favourite places we’ve visited: The World’s Largest Virtual Solar System Drive

As mentioned previously, we did at least two of the drives which incorporate the World's Largest Virtual Solar System Drive. We joined one of the drives on the Mitchell Highway at Narrabri. Just south of the town, there is a truck-stop/picnic area with a 3D model of Neptune to which it was attached. We were on the outskirts of the giant Solar System – but Pluto was hundreds of kilometres back up the highway towards Moree. Driving towards Coonabarabran, we were nearing the centre: the Sun.

The drive works something like this. Imagine that the dome of the Anglo-Australian Observatory at Siding Spring, Coonabarabran is a scale model of the sun. Someone, in their impressive imagination, created scale models of all of the planets (even Pluto) at the scale distances along the roads leading away from Siding Spring. A three-dimensional scale model of each planet is mounted on a gigantic billboard containing information about that planet on it. So, Mercury was just down the driveway road from the observatory, and Venus further along than that. Earth was almost at the main road and Mars just beyond the intersection. The model of Jupiter was simply enormous, and located just before the road entered Coonabarabran.

At this point, there are five versions of the model – each spread out along one of the five main roads leading away from Coonabarabran so that, for example, Pluto is located to the north between Narrabri and Moree, to the east near Merriwa, and to the south in Dubbo. There are several Saturns – hugely spectacular with the rings, of course – located a few kilometres away from town along each of the main roads. Neptune and Uranus much further away down the highway. Pluto, hundreds of kilometres away in Dubbo, was a tiny hemisphere of grey attached to a gigantic board in the carpark of the Tourist Information Centre. The Bookworm, who loves space, loved the drive. So did the rest of us. Tracking down each planet and trying to guess how long it would take to reach the next one was a fun way to pass the time with the kids in the car.

The Solar System Drive has to be one of the more unusual sights we have seen on holidays, but it was terrific fun! The kids loved it as we stopped at each planet to read the brief information and marvel over the relative sizes and distances represented. And it was an interesting way to pass the time on some very long driving. I’m glad that they stopped with Pluto. It was hard enough trying to comprehend the enormity and emptiness of the Solar System without having to stretch my brain around distances across the Universe! It wouldn’t have fit, anyway.

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