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Eau Claire Planet Walk nears fundraising goal

RELEASED: Aug. 16, 2011

Saturn
This photo illustration shows the future location of the Saturn marker along the Eau Claire Planet Walk. (Photo illustration by Ben Schram)

EAU CLAIRE — Provided a fundraising goal is reached, by fall 2012 area residents and visitors can add "walking among the planets" to the growing list of reasons to visit Eau Claire's Phoenix Park — already a popular local entertainment and recreation spot.

The Eau Claire Planet Walk, just over a mile in length, is a scale model of the solar system that will wend its way from a model of the sun in Phoenix Park past informational markers for each of the planets at points along the Chippewa River, ending at a Pluto marker on the UW-Eau Claire campus.

An additional $5,000 is needed for the project, said Dr. Paul Thomas, UW-Eau Claire professor of physics and astronomy and a creator of the Planet Walk. So far donors have given $19,000 through the
UW-Eau Claire Foundation in support of the project, and the additional money raised will fund the design and installation of the planet markers and a payment to the Downtown Farmers Market in return for the use of its kiosk as the mounting point for the Planet Walk's sun model, Thomas said. A wall of the kiosk also will be used to hold a plaque acknowledging donors and providing an overview and map of the Planet Walk.

"I'm very thankful for the enthusiasm of the donors who have supported this project," Thomas said. "I share their certainty that this Planet Walk will be a wonderful addition to the revived center of Eau Claire as well as an educational resource for families for years to come."

Donors contributing $2,000 each to sponsor planet markers are the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society in memory of Jim Fitzl (Mercury); Brady and Jeanne Foust, Eau Claire (Venus); James and Patricia Simonsen, Eau Claire (Earth); Roland and Pamela Hicks, Eau Claire (Mars); Kathleen Rulka and Brian Ewert, Marshfield (Jupiter); David Whiteley, Colfax (Saturn); Matt Evans, Eau Claire (Uranus); Dr. Bert, Susan and Anna Moritz, Fall Creek (Neptune); and UW-Eau Claire's L.E. Phillips Planetarium (Pluto). Michael and Martha O'Halloran, Eau Claire, made a gift of $1,000 to sponsor the sun model to be mounted atop the Downtown Farmers Market kiosk.

"This is a great opportunity to help promote the science of astronomy," said Moritz, an amateur astronomer who is a member of the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society. "It's a fun way to illustrate the size of our solar system and to put into perspective how our planet, the Earth, fits in."

The idea for the Planet Walk grew out of one of Thomas' astronomy courses. Each year students in the course create a scale model of the solar system in a Phillips Science Hall corridor. Thomas and Janis Roadt, then an undergraduate physics major at UW-Eau Claire, observed how surprised students were when they saw, with the aid of the scale model in the corridor, the small sizes of the planets and the great distances between them.

"The size of the universe is so incredible that most people don't realize just how small our planet really is," said Roadt, an Eau Claire resident and May 2011
UW-Eau Claire graduate. "If we could shrink our solar system down to a reasonable walking distance, the sun would be the size of a beach ball and Earth would be the size of a small pea. They would also be much further apart than you might think. The planet walk provides a 'real' way to get a grasp on the solar system using that sort of scale — not to mention it's a fun activity for Chippewa Valley residents and visitors to get out and enjoy the scenic downtown area while learning about the solar system at the same time."

Roadt's work on the project included calculating the distances between the planet markers, helping with the walk layout, creating small models of the planets based on their respective sizes and helping to prepare a presentation for the Eau Claire City Council. The council unanimously approved the Eau Claire Planet Walk in August 2009.

The Planet Walk's sun model will measure 16 inches. The sizes of the planets, which will be represented by bas-relief hemispheres on plaques bearing each planet's name and additional information, will be tiny compared to the sun: a 1.65-inch diameter for Jupiter and a 0.15-inch diameter for Earth, for example.

The distances between the planets on the Planet Walk will be scaled down from the actual distances at a ratio of 3.4 billion to one. Traveling the Planet Walk will be equivalent to following a straight line away from the sun with all the planets lined up directly on one side of the sun, Thomas said.

The fact that the Planet Walk begins in downtown Eau Claire and ends on the UW-Eau Claire campus just across the river from the university's L.E. Phillips Planetarium is significant, Thomas said.

"By designing the walk in this way, we wanted to symbolize the important link between UW-Eau Claire and the community, and the many partnerships we share," Thomas said.

Thomas said the Planet Walk's location in Eau Claire's increasingly popular Phoenix Park area will give the project high visibility among residents and visitors to the area.

"I think this will be a significant tourist attraction, and it's indisputably in the right place," Thomas said.

Donations in support of the Eau Claire Planet Walk can be made through the UW-Eau Claire Foundation. For giving information, visit the Foundation website or call 715-836-5630.

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JP/AH

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