Just how far away is the Sun's nearest star? To put the distance in perspective, an exhibition named after late astronomer and television personality Carl Sagan now stretches from New York to Hawaii, becoming the world's largest exhibition.
The Sagan Planet Walk features a 1-to-5-billion scale model of the solar system, with tiny planetary spheres scattered across three-quarters of a mile in Ithaca, N.Y. The exhibition now stretches to Hilo, Hawaii, with the addition of a sculpture representing Alpha Centauri C -- the nearest star outside of the solar system. An official dedication ceremony will take place on Sept. 28.
In keeping with the exhibition's scale, the new station is located at the Imiloa Astronomy Center on the University of Hawaii's Hilo campus. The expanded walk will measure 5,000 miles from end to end, handily eclipsing the previous record of 66 miles held by artwork in the subway tunnels of Stockholm, Sweden.
The point of the exhibition, and its expansion, is to give people a visceral feel for the vast scale of the universe and our place within it, said Charles Trautmann, adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University and executive director of Ithaca's Sciencenter, a hands-on science museum that first spearheaded the project in 1997. "Imagine standing at the Alpha Centauri station on Hawaii and looking east over the Pacific Ocean. Some 8,000 kilometers away, at another exhibition station in downtown Ithaca is a pale blue dot only 2.5 millimeters in diameter representing Earth.
"Carl Sagan, the Cornell astronomer for whom the planet walk is named, captured the experience so eloquently: 'The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.... To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known,'" Trautmann said.
The Alpha Centauri station was part of the walk's original design, Trautmann said. But it was only in the past two years that a partnership and funding emerged from the Sciencenter, Imiloa Astronomy Center, Cornell, the University of Hawaii and NASA.
The Alpha Centauri station includes a large Hawaiian figure, sculpted in Hawaiian volcanic stone, that represents Alpha Centauri in female form; an etched 280 mm semicircle below the figure's chin is the size of Alpha Centauri scaled to the Planet Walk model.
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