Oceania Planetary Park: a voyage through the solar system

Trton, the largest moon of Neptune, with its parent planet in the backgroun, part of the Oceania Planetary Park
Trton, the largest moon of Neptune, with its parent planet in the background, part of the Oceania Planetary Park

Opening on Saturday November 16th as a part of the Linden Endowment for the Arts Artist In Residence series, Oceania Planetary Park is the work of Kimika Ying.

Designed as an educational and informative piece, the installation provides visitors with a journey through the solar system – and more. The basic concept is simple to grasp, but actually hides a wealth of detail; as such, the visitor needs to have a little patience, a good hand for moving the camera around and a good eye for spotting things.

You arrive more-or-less at the centre of the region, which has been landscaped as a park surrounded by hills. You’re actually standing on a disc representing the Sun, and a path winding away from it leads you through the parkland and past each of the planets in the solar system in their order of distance from the Sun, winding slowly up towards an observatory sitting up in the hills.

Mars, Oceania Planetary Park
Mars, Oceania Planetary Park

While the distances between the planets are not to scale, the models of the planets most certainly are, allowing the visitor to grasp the huge scale of the outer gas giants of the solar system when compared to the rocky inner worlds. The rotation of the planets is also to scale as well, with one minute of real-time representing 24 hours. This makes it possible to compare the familiar rotation of the Earth with the heady rotation of massive Jupiter, which spins on its axis every 9.9 hours, giving rise to the huge banded weather systems and turbulence visible in its dense atmosphere.

A further sense of scale can be obtained by keeping an eye out for the various moons of the planets which have been included, and which are also orbiting to a scale time of 1 minute to 24 hours. To see some, you have to carefully zoom out and pan around. In the case of Mars, however, you’ll have to zoom-in to the planet relatively closely to see tiny, tiny Phobos and Deimos, both likely captured asteroids, zipping around the planet, little more than dots compared to the bulk of the planet.

Phobos, the innermost of the two, is just some 9,377 kilometres above Mars, and zips around the planet in a little of seven and a half hours. So fast is Phobos’ orbit that, contrary to what logic might seem to dictate, it is slowly falling towards Mars as the result of gravitational tidal forces. At some point, Phobos will reach the Roche limit and well break up, showering the surface of Mars with its remains. Deimos, on the other hand, is further away from Mars (around 23,460 km) and orbiting more slowly than the planet is rotating. This mean tidal forces are having the opposite effect, slowly boosting Deimos away from Mars so that it will eventually break free of the planet’s hold on it.

The far side of the Moon (often wrongly referred to as the "dark side" of the Moon) and below, the Earth
The far side of the Moon (often wrongly referred to as the “dark side” of the Moon) and below, the Earth

As the distances between moons and their “parent” planets are to scale, you’ll have to look a little further afield in order to see some of them, as noted above. Such is the case with our own moon, pictured above, and with Neptune’s Triton, seen in the picture at the top of this piece, which is nique among the large moons of the solar system as it is in a retrograde orbit about its parent. As you approach Jupiter, keep an eye out for Io, the most volcanically active place in the solar system, and the closest of the Galilean moons to their parent planet.  When you do find a moon, try clicking on it; a link to additional information may be offered to you.

Jupiter: Oceania Planetary Park
Jupiter: Oceania Planetary Park

There are further touches here not to be missed. Each planet has its own information board which will give you a wealth of information on each planet, complete with links to external resources. The gravity well of each planet is neatly represented by a depression in the ground under it, making for a further means of comparison. As you  pass the planets, you may also note that texturing may appear to be missing on parts of them. It isn’t. Blank areas denote those parts which remain unseen by human and / or robotic eyes in our explorations of the solar system.

The path ends at the doors of the observatory. Just outside of this sit tiny Pluto and Charon, the largest of its five known companions.

Pluto has long been the oddball of the solar system. Its orbit is far more elliptical than the other planets and is sharply inclined to the plane of the ecliptic (the “flat” reference plane the major planets all occupy as they orbit the Sun). Not only this, but Pluto’s eccentric orbit means that at times it is actually closer to the Sun than Neptune, the outermost of the massive gas giant planets. Pluto’s orbit is also regarded as “chaotic”, in that it cannot be predicted over extended periods of time (10-20 million years), as it is constantly being affected by myriads of large and small factors, all of which serve to disrupt its path around the Sun over the millennia.

These factors, combined with the fact that Pluto is actually smaller than Eris, an object in the Kuiper Belt (which Pluto also occupies) classified as a “dwarf planet” and which appears to be of similar composition to both Pluto and Charon, led to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), reclassifying Pluto as a dwarf planet, relegating its status somewhat in the solar system. To compensate, a new class of dwarf planets was created, called “Plutoids”, which now includes Eris and Charon.

NASA's New Horizons Pluto (and beyond) mission, and the Oceania Planetary Park observatory
NASA’s New Horizons Pluto (and beyond) probe, and the Oceania Planetary Park observatory

Pluto is the subject of a NASA deep-space mission, New Horizons, launched in 2006. New Horizons is currently the fastest man-made vehicle ever to be launched from Earth (58,536 km/h), and the first to be launched directly into a solar escape trajectory, rather than relying on multiple “gravity assists” from various planets in other to boost its velocity to allow it to escape the Sun’s gravitational influcences. Which is not to say the vehicle will reach Pluto in mid-2015 entirely unassisted.

In 2007, New Horizon swung by Jupiter, using the planet’s gravity to boost it to a speed of 83,000 km/h relative to the Sun, briefly making it the fastest man-made object in the solar system although that has since been substantially reduced (to around 37,000 km/h) as a result of the influence of the Sun’s gravity, returning that honour to Voyager 1. New Horizons itself is represented by a model of the vehicle close to Pluto and Charon, together with an information board which will take visitors to the mission’s website.

Inside the Oceania Park observatory there is still more to see. Like me, Kimika  appears to have a fascination with Mars; the telescope at the top of the observatory somewhat resembles the Clark telescope used by Percival Lowell to observe Mars, and there is both a globe of Mars on the ground floor and a copy of Giovanni Schiaparelli’s famous map of Mars showing its mythical network of “canali” (channels), which Lowell took to be canals built by some intelligence on the planet, leading him to his hypothesis of Mars as the Abode of Life (a 1908 edition of which actually sits on my bookshelf here at home).

The observatory also features two Anywhere doors. One leads to another planetary walk, the other to a gravity well exhibit.

The second planetary walk allows visitors to gain an understanding of the real distances involved in the Solar System. Starting at the Sun, visitors move along a corridor passing each of the planets (mounted on a plinth) at a distance representative of their distance from the Sun. Given the distances are to scale, some of the planets are necessarily tiny, and you’ll have to use careful camera zooming to see them.

A scale model of the distances between the Sun and the planets. Left: looking back from the orbit of Mars; Centre: fro the orbit of Jupiter. Right: from the orbit of Uranus
Space really is big:  a scale model of the distances between the Sun and the planets. Left: looking back from the orbit of Mars; Centre: from the orbit of Jupiter. Right: from the orbit of Uranus (click to enlarge)

This walk also gives you a feel for how fast light moves outward from the Sun and across the solar system. A series of vertical white lines moving slowly outward from the sphere of the sun represent light moving at 297,600 kilometres per second (186,000 miles per second). Move alongside one as it progresses, and it will take you 8 minutes to reach the little sphere representing the Earth.

So as Douglas Adams famously pointed out. Space is mindbogglingly big.

The door to the gravity well exhibit leads you to a piece attempting to visualise the gravity well, the conceptual model of the gravity field surrounding a body in space. It’s an interactive piece, allowing the visitor to fire a cannonball at various angles and witness the influence on of the gravity well on a moving object. It’s an interesting exhibit, but I admit that I can’t help but feel that perhaps more of an examination of orbital mechanics might not have been a little more engrossing for visitors, with broader opportunities for interactive pieces. However, this really is a minor quibble on my part; particularly given the amount of work that has gone into the installation.

Inside the observatory: Oceania Planetary Park
Inside the observatory: Oceania Planetary Park

Overall, Oceania Planetary Park should make for an interesting visit. The note cards accompanying the planets offer good reading without thumping the visitor with too much information and link to some very good resources. While the installation might benefit from more in-world interaction (possible use of Media on Prim, etc), the subject of planetary astronomy and exploration is so big, trying to incorporate everything or covering the basics through the use of in-world tools and the like isn’t necessarily the easiest of tasks. As it is, Kimika presents the solar system in an easy-to-appreciate style and which offers visitors the chance to learn more about the phenomenal place in which we live as we sail around the Sun on this pale blue dot.

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