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What Exactly Are Those Solar System Plaques Around Campus?

At the University of Memphis, it’s likely that many students have observed the planetary models stretching from the School of Music to the UC while doing their daily class commutes. These models are a part of the Voyage Solar System Model, a project that brings the depths of space to life. Each model contains scaled down dioramas of celestial objects relative to each other in size and distance, and a plaque with information about either a specific planet, the asteroid belt, or the Sun.

The Voyage Solar System Model was created in partnership with the Smithsonian Museum. Joanne Rhodes, a physics professor at the University of Memphis, was responsible for advocating for the project to be installed on campus and for raising the $20,000 needed to fund the project. Her main objective for the project was to get people to think about what it is really like in our solar system and to better comprehend the incredible distance between objects in the Milky Way. The project took two years to complete due to the COVID pandemic, though despite that setback, Rhodes describes the model as one of the “most important accomplishments in my teaching career.” Donations for the project came from NASA, a Tennessee state grant, several private donors, and Big Kid Science.

The project was inspired by the solar system model that spans the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. The concept originated in the 1980s by Dr. Jeffrey Bennett, the founder of Big Kid Science. He designed the model with a scale power of 10 billion to 1, in which the size of the Sun is comparable to the size of a large grapefruit. He used the model to give observers a sense of perspective of how big the solar system is, and how small humans are compared to it. Dr. Bennett helped design the solar system model on campus in partnership with the Smithsonian, along with other collaborators in New Jersey.

Students are encouraged to take a few minutes from their busy schedules to check out the Voyage Solar System Model and gain a better understanding of humanity’s corner of the galaxy, and the massive scale of it. Any questions students may have about the solar system can be answered by taking a tour of the model, which can be scheduled through the University of Memphis website.

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