Planets Everywhere: Building our model solar system

April 1, 2010

Things rarely get me unreservedly excited in my ripe old age. I’m thinking excited in terms of the way I felt about birthday presents when about ten. When I could, I’d stack them in order and slowly open each one and try to stretch out the event as long as possible, coaxing open paper and laboriously untying ribbons. The kind of excitement that actually makes me slow down instead of speeding up, because it’s just that good that I don’t want it to end.

I’m feeling that way about our solar system.

"Build a Model Solar System" -- Ours will look like this when we are through

We are building an Orrery, a brass-and-gears wonder of a mechanical thing (and heavy!) that models the planets in the solar system. Originally, the pieces of the thing were shipped out in subscription fashion: you’d subscribe and get a magazine every so often—52 in total—each magazine with half a dozen or so parts towards the whole. Getting our hands on this thing was not so easy; now the company provides a US-based order form, but that is a new development. We bought our Orrery as a set of back issues, at least some of which appear to have come from actual shops in Australia.

I can’t stand how much fun I’m having with this. Even cutting the pieces out of their wretched blister pack and setting them out on the table (set screws, gears, axles, planets) is bliss.

I’m even reading the magazines. Mostly they’re of about ninth-grade reading material, re-hashing a lot of stuff I just kind of know already. But occasionally there is a gem I can apply to my actual life.

Like the chart about Mercury. Mercury, as it turns out, is a tough little planet to spot in the heavens, as its angular separation from the sun never exceeds about 28 degrees. Translation: Mercury is only visible for short periods of the year, and only then right at sunset or sunrise, low on the horizon. I noticed that right about now was a good viewing time for the planet, at sunset.

After a particularly nice sunset in Arroyo Grande on Sunday night, I noticed a piercingly bright Venus, which reminded me to look for Mercury. I whipped out my iPhone and fired up StarMap, which I still maintain is the best iPhone app I ever purchased, well worth its price tag ($11.99 for the regular version, which I have, or $18.99 for the pro version with many more objects in the database). Its gorgeous interface immediately located Mercury for me, and, lo! There it was, faintly, between the sun and Venus.

Inspired, I ran out the back of the house toward the eastern sky. There I was able to use StarMap to locate both Saturn and Mars; both were easy to spot and bright. This is the first time I have ever seen four planets at once, and I was childishly giddy about it.

The worst thing about my excitement about building our solar system and learning more about all of the planet is this: My silly husband won’t be back from California until Sunday night, and, until then, I’m reduced to staring sadly at the box of solar system parts and magazines, counting the hours and minutes until we can build the next stage of it together. The iPad that is scheduled to arrive on Saturday is hardly a substitute for sheer solar system excitement.

Cool sky-and-star-related Tools for Geeks like Me

  • StarMap for iPhone ($11.99; $18.99 for Pro version)
  • The Photographer’s Ephemeris (amazingly, Free) Adobe Air application with great data about sun and moon locations and angles
  • Sky Map for Android (free) For Android phones. Uses the compass and accelerometer such that you can hold up the phone in front of you and it displays what stars should be behind it. Impressive.

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