BARRE — There is a chipmunk crossing between Neptune and Uranus, school buses will soon roll regularly between Jupiter and Saturn, and the sun is ironically located in the shade — not far from the trail that leads to the local dog park.
Welcome to the “Barre Planet Path,” a just-completed project that got its first official workout over the weekend and has suddenly made it possible to literally get lost in space without ever leaving the short section of paved bike path that runs by Barre City Elementary and Middle School.
It isn’t a first of its kind, or even first in Vermont (there’s one like it at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich) and Rick McMahan will tell you it sure didn’t happen overnight.
“It’s been a work in progress for awhile,” said McMahan, a longtime member of the Barre Kiwanis Club, who got a thumbs up for the project from the club and the city’s bike path committee five years ago.
Both the club and the committee embraced McMahan’s vision of installing a dozen interactive signs, including one for each planet and three others — one for the sun, another for the asteroids that can be found between Mars and Jupiter, and the third for Proxima Centauri.
That last sign, located at the end of the Barre Planet Path, is the only one out of step with the one-foot-equals-one-million-miles scale of orbital distances developed by a now-retired NASA scientist.
Posted on the Bridge Street end of the bike path about 3 feet from the sign for Pluto, McMahan said the sign for the nearest star to our sun should actually be nearly 4,300 miles away in South America based on the scale prepared by Dr. David Hathaway.
“It should be in Bolivia,” he said.
That would be an awfully long walk, and it’s the kind of thing McMahan hopes folks ponder while watching some of the videos — more than 250 in all — he has embedded into the QR codes that are part of each of the signs and can be scanned with your smartphone.
You can view everything from the latest edition of “The Mars Report” to an interesting video about the geysers on Enceladus, which if you didn’t know it (most people don’t) is Saturn’s sixth largest moon.
“I really view this as hopefully a spark that could get central Vermont kids interested in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics,” he said.
McMahan well remembers the planetarium that was built at the Long Island high school he attended prior to his senior year, fueling what has been his own lifelong interest in astronomy and space exploration.
“Wouldn’t it be great if central Vermont became a hotbed for space exploration?” he said, suggesting he’d settle for kindling an interest in “one kid interested in figuring out the next big thing.”
“The more we know, the more we realize we don’t know,” said McMahan, who didn’t know he’d become a NASA Solar System Ambassador Volunteer — one of five in Vermont — when he first proposed the planet path in 2014.
McMahan didn’t achieve ambassador volunteer status until early last year and by then he had borrowed a measuring wheel to plot the path and spray paint the solar system to Hathaway’s scale not once, but twice.
“The spray paint faded,” he explained, noting that it since required a “refresher,” but won’t need another thanks to the signs that he posted earlier this month with the help of fellow Kiwanis Club members.
Along with providing a wealth of information — most of which you need a smartphone to unlock — the signs themselves answer a question that has nagged bike path users, who have wondered why the names of the planets were painted on the narrow strip of asphalt that runs from Fairview Street in Barre to Bridge Street in Barre Town.
Bisected by Parkside Terrace at the entrance to the elementary school, the path gives path users a sense of the relative distance between the planets and the sun.
The sun is the size of a basketball in Hathaway’s model and the Earth, which is located a little more than 30 yards (93 feet for 93 million miles) away from the sun is the size of the head of a quilting pin.
It’s less than 500 feet between the sun and Jupiter (486 feet, or 486 million miles), but that’s less than half the distance between the neighboring planets of Uranus and Neptune. They are separated by 1,016 feet (more than 1 billion miles).
McMahan, who eventually hopes to mount the signs on granite pedestals, said he wanted to install them before this Saturday’s 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. He also wanted to accommodate fellow Kiwanis Club member Ian Gauthier, who is the children’s librarian at the Aldrich Public Library.
Gauthier, who just launched a summer reading program, “A Universe of Stories,” included a visit to the Barre Planet Path on Saturday.
Joined by McMahan, several children and their parents, Gauthier read “Three Little Aliens and the Big Bad Robot” in the shady spot near the sun at the outset of an afternoon walk that included more than a little space trivia.