Kansas City develops tour of solar system

Sunday, July 22, 2007

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The whole universe could soon be in downtown Kansas City, or at least a smaller version.

The city is developing a walking tour offering a permanent scale model of the solar system that would stretch from the downtown loop to Union Station.

The exhibit, called Voyage, will shrink interplanetary space so that one foot equals 2 million miles.

Once completed, pedestrians can try the light-year shuffle, stroll by the TWA Moonliner and Pluto, encounter a new dwarf planet called Eris, or finish their one-mile odyssey en route to the stars with the Voyager spacecraft.

The $327,000 project, which is expected to open early next year, is being funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and is based on a similar display at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Backers believe the route, which runs along Baltimore Avenue through the Crossroads Arts District to Union Station, will create a walkable connection between downtown districts and can educate people about the vastness of space.

"What's really exciting is that it puts the size of the planets and the sun on a scale that you can't do in a museum," said Jeff Goldstein of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. "The sun is the size of a large grapefruit. The home of the human race is the size of the head of a pin, and the orbit of the moon fits into a child's hand. That's how far we've been when it comes to space travel."

The idea of a 10 billion-to-one scale model of the solar system was developed by a University of Colorado astrophysicist and brought to the Smithsonian Institution in 1991, but it took 10 years before the exhibit opened.

The Washington display is about six football fields long. Each celestial object is marked by an 8 1/2-foot stanchion that includes a scale model where the planets and their larger moons are etched inside glass.

One of the visitors to the National Mall last year was Dennis Cheek, vice president for education at the Kauffman Foundation.

When he learned the Center for Space Science Education was hoping to replicate the Voyage display elsewhere, Cheek decided it was a "no-brainer" for Kansas City.

"We thought we could use it as an anchor for the new downtown," he said. "We offered to make it a gift to the city and the city eagerly embraced it."

The Kauffman Foundation decided to add a couple of extra stops: for example, the Eris dwarf planet, which orbits beyond Pluto, and Voyager spacecraft.

Officials with Union Station, which has a planetarium, hope to capitalize on the project as a way to enhance Science City.

"The best part is it's science plus economic development," said Andi Udris, the president and CEO of Union Station.

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