diamond geezer

 Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Otford Solar System

The Otford Solar System (Earth in the foreground, the Sun and Mercury further behind)There are some things you don't expect to find on a village recreation ground. Like the planet Jupiter, for example. But head down to Otford in the Kent Commuter belt, just north of Sevenoaks, and there it is, red spot and all. And Venus. And Neptune. And all the other planets in the solar system, scattered around the village as part of an enormous scale model. Only in Britain, eh?

BestMate and I were wandering through Otford last week, like you do, admiring its quaint backwateriness. We strolled round the duckpond that doubles up as a rather frenetic roundabout. We looked behind the very old church and failed to find an unsignposted Bishop's Palace. We observed an unusually high concentration of small boutiques which sold hats, blouses and accessories to genteel Kentish women. We walked past the millennium mosaic, and the Heritage Centre (which was closed) and various other cultural extras that elevate this village well above the rural norm. And then I led him into the playing field and showed him the delights of the universe. He was almost impressed.

Otford JupiterFirst stop Jupiter, which was located not just beyond the asteroid belt but just in front of a tall hedge. Our solar system's largest planet was represented by a squat white pillar, topped by a metal disc on which was etched a two dimensional representation of the gas giant. Otford's Jupiter wasn't big, just 3cm across, but this is a scale model and there's a lot to cram in. We then walked another 100 metres or so past a football pitch to reach the pillar representing the Earth - a journey more like half a million kilometres in real life. On this disc was a tiny pinprick representing the Moon, less than a millimetre in diameter and orbiting at a distance of 9 centimetres. Don't worry, I looked all this information up on the website afterwards, I didn't take a ruler with me.

I apologised to BestMate for dragging him across a playing field so that I could view the Inner Planets. "Honest," I said, "I just want to take a few photographs and then we can leave." He shrugged with well-practised resignation. But there was an unexpected setback to my plans. The Otford solar system had two other visitors that day, one teenage male and one teenage female, and they had no intention of clearing out of orbit. Indeed, after a few cometary flypasts they came to a sudden halt near Mercury, settled down on the grass and started snogging. No chance of a decent photo while these two heavenly bodies were eclipsing the view.

space debris close to the Otford Sun"Sorry," I said to BestMate, "but I really am going to walk over there to look at the Sun, no matter how socially gauche it is." We strode purposefully towards the shiny football-sized dome representing our nearest star, attempting to ignore all the groping and cavorting taking place in the heliosphere. *cough* Suitably embarrassed we continued on our grand tour, first to Mercury ("don't look, they're still at it") and then to Venus ("it's shameless, like they haven't noticed us at all"). Typical, I'll probably only ever explore this solar system once, but my single opportunity for photographical evidence was being ruined by an unscripted alien invasion.

We paused to read the information board at the far end of the rec. We learnt that the model had been constructed to a scale of 1:five billion. We learnt that the positions of the planets around the village matched their astral alignment at midnight on 1st January 2000. We laughed at the suggestion that "dabbing a pillar top with a soft tissue is said to bring good luck". We checked that Venus and Mars were still cuddling (and they were). And we could have read lots of statistics about the planets, but nearby amorous activity was becoming rather cringeworthy at this point so we headed off into the relative privacy of deep space. If only space travel were this easy.

We didn't have a map with us, so we never found Uranus up the road or Neptune at the far end of the village or Pluto out in the middle of a distant field. I doubt that many visitors ever reach the outer reaches of the Otford solar system. But there is one further part of the model that's seen by far more people, far far away. It's a bronze globe about three centimetres across, resting on a platform in the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, representing Proxima Centauri. This red dwarf is the closest star to the Sun, but even at this scale they've still had to position it as many as 5400 miles from Otford's solar centre. Because space is big - really big. And, thanks to the good people of Otford, it's possible to believe how vastly, hugely mind-bogglingly big it is.

The Otford Solar System (map) (photos)
The Somerset Space Walk (leaflet) (photos)
Cycle the Solar System (York)
Spaced Out UK

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