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Northern Maine celebrates New Horizons Mission with run “at the speed of light”

On July 15, northern Maine will host the fastest run ever performed by humans: at “light speed” (186,000 miles per second) along the Maine Solar System Model. The run is being held in honor of the NASA New Horizons spacecraft which, after a nine-year voyage, will fly past and study Pluto in mid-July during the close encounter. As the first post-flyby images are returning to Earth at the speed of light on the morning of July 15, groups of runners will simulate the photo signal by running from Pluto to Earth along the Maine Solar System Model through the various small towns and villages in the rural northeast corner of the United States along U.S. Route 1.

The Maine Solar System Model is in Aroostook County, the largest and northernmost county in the eastern U.S. Established by the University of Maine at Presque Isle, the Northern Maine Museum of Science, and the northern Maine community, it is the largest solar system model in the Western Hemisphere, with both the planet diameters and distances from the Sun set to a scale of one mile equal to an astronomical unit (AU, the distance from the Sun to Earth). The model consists of a 50-foot diameter Sun and extends 95 miles to the dwarf planet Eris, which is about one inch in diameter.

The “From Pluto at the Speed of Light” run was the idea of Alan Stern, the Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission. As a scientific investigation to obtain the first close look at Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft was launched in 2006. As part of an extended mission, New Horizons will move deeper into the Kuiper Belt to study one or more of the icy, rocky objects in that distant region. The Maine Solar System Model has been part of the educational outreach for New Horizons during the course of this mission.

The “From Pluto” run will begin at 4 a.m., just after sunup on July 15. The “signal” from Pluto to Earth will be passed along relay-style by several groups of runners. Each group will run for approximately five to six miles along the 32-mile course, maintaining an eight minute, ten second per mile pace in order to run along the solar system model at scale light speed. U.S. Route 1 in Maine is the easternmost road in the country, extending along the eastern seaboard south to Key West. The run will include the Main Streets of Monticello (2010 population: 790), Bridgewater (610), and Mars Hill (1,453).

The solar system model was constructed over a four-year period from 1999 to 2003 and reflects the hard work and pride of this rural agricultural community. More than one percent of the total population of Aroostook County—about 700 people—was involved in the construction of the steel-and-fiberglass planets, including students from 12 schools throughout the region. The initial construction included nine planets, seven moons, and the Sun, and has been expanded to include dwarf planets Ceres and Eris and a second Pluto model that shows the present distance from the Sun. Three more objects are under construction.

The solar system model is part of the Northern Maine Museum of Science, located at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. Both the model and the museum were organized by Kevin McCartney, UMPI Professor of Geology. While the museum, the University and the County are small by some standards, McCartney proudly points out that the solar system model was built on a budget of “zero dollars,” with all materials and labor donated.

“Northern Maine has a strong identification to the solar system, due to the model, Planet Head Day and the strong science programs in area schools, which include the university and Maine School of Science and Mathematics,” McCartney said.

The museum is one of eight institutions that is part of the educational outreach of the New Horizons mission. An event organized by the museum to celebrate the Pluto mission is the annual Planet Head Day, in which many members of the community shave their heads and have them painted to look like planets and other celestial bodies; videos can be found on youtube.com. The event has raised about a hundred thousand dollars for a local cancer organization.

Spectators are encouraged to gather in Bridgewater, Mars Hill and at the model of Earth to cheer on the runners. At the event’s completion, participants are invited to a celebration at the auto dealership located adjacent to the Earth model to see the “close encounter” picture of Pluto that has been brought up the highway. While the region is rural, with the lowest population density in the eastern U.S., this event is expected to have significant involvement from local residents, either as runners or observers.

For more information about this unique run, visit www.umpi.edu/pluto-to-earth or contact Dr. Kevin McCartney at 207-768-9482 orkevin.mccartney@maine.edu.

For more information about the New Horizons mission, visit www.nasa.gov/newhorizons and http://pluto.jhuapl.edu.