Scobee puts planets in perspective

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Metal plaques engraved with names of planets, their respective symbol, distance in astronomical units from the sun, average surface temperature and diameter are installed in the pavement, beginning on the west side of Scobee and ending on the south side of Loftin. V. Finster

The center offers a variety of space presentations to the public.

By Jason Durant

Back in October, journalism sophomore V. Finster was walking to class and noticed markings on the sidewalk between Parking Lot 21 and Loftin Student Center.

“I was walking in that area one day and saw ‘Uranus’ scribbled in the pavement and thought to myself ‘who did that?’ and just went about my day,” she said.

The markings Finster saw in October would soon be the Scobee Education Center’s latest project.

The center is located north of Parking Lot 21 and south of the chemistry and geology building.

Rick Varner, director of the center, said in an interview Dec. 5 that he came up with lesson plans to teach the distance between the planets to students years ago during his days at NASA in the education department.

“Doing scale solar system activities has been a natural thing for me with elementary kids, so I decided I wanted to bring the activity to Scobee,” he said.

Varner organized and oversaw installation of 10 plaques in linear order down the sidewalk between Lot 21 and Loftin, spaced out in ratio to the actual distance of the planets in the solar system.

To ensure accuracy in arranging the plaques, he said, “I figured out how big my space is and what scale I need to back it up, so it fits”

“I also had to take into account the new parking lot construction starting in January to make sure the area I had for the plaques remained pristine,” he said. “I didn’t want the sun pulling a fast one on me by moving to a new spot.”

Dr. Stella Lovato, vice president for college services, and David Ortega, district facilities manager, granted Varner permission to conduct this project, which was funded by revenue from the center.

Kevin Schroeder, facilities specialist, drilled and installed the plaques Dec. 4.

Scobee Education Center hosts school field trips, frequently bringing in grades K-8 to learn about space.

The center is partially funded by revenue from school groups that visit.

A metal plaque engraved with the name, symbol and distance in astronomical units from the sun, average surface temperature and diameter of planet Uranus is installed in the pavement on the west side of the chemistry and geology building. The symbol for Uranus is a combination of the sun and spear tip of Mars, as Greek mythology personifies Uranus as heaven. V. Finster

To observe the plaques from the beginning, while staying out of the construction area in Lot 21, students can start at the sun plaque south of the blue tower of Scobee.

“If you take a look, you’ll notice the plaques aren’t in a perfect, straight line because concrete has rebar, so it moves back and forth, but the measurements between the plaques are still accurate,” he said.

The plaques, which are made of brass, have the name of the planet in the center, as well as the AU measurement.

AU is an abbreviation for astronomical unit. One AU is roughly 93 million miles.

The distance between the sun and Earth is one AU.

Mercury is closer to the sun than Earth; therefore, its plaque has a decimal AU.

Jupiter is much farther away from the sun than Earth, therefore, Jupiter has a 5.2 AU.

“Just to put it in prospective for you, One AU, which is 93 million miles, is 100 inches on this walkway of plaques. So, after the Pluto plaque, which is located near Gonzales Hall, the nearest star’s plaque would be 429 miles away from here, such as Louisiana or Oklahoma,” he said.

Cerus is also included in the plaque lineup, which used to be referred to as Asteroid No. 1.

Cerus is in between Mars and Jupiter. It is now considered a dwarf planet.

Varner started the plaque project in March 2018. He has been in the space education profession for almost 30 years now.

He started out in the education department at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. He was a part of a project called the Aerospace Education Services Project. It was a space mobile tour containing space technology and education materials used in presentations for students.

Varner traveled back and forth between Washington, D.C., and Maine via the space mobile, educating elementary and middle school audiences.

“The schools would ask me to do programs of their choice. I never had a set presentation,” he said.

When the Obama administration began, budget cuts were so significant that they scaled a lot of education funds back from NASA, and student programs declined.

NASA transitioned to online programs around 2012.

Information about the plaques, upcoming events at Scobee, or purchasing tickets to observe the planetarium and or other exhibits, contact the front desk of the center at 210-486-0100.


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