Map of the scale model solar system

JMU aims to construct a scale model of the Solar System stretching across campus. 

Shanil Virani, the director of the John C. Wells Planetarium, hopes that the project will further engage the Harrisonburg community. Money for the project will come from a mini-grant the Faculty Senate has provided, and the JMU physics and astronomy department. 

According to Virani, who’s also a professor in the physics and astronomy department, the Solar System model will include signs marking each planet’s location, with the sun placed at Festival and Pluto placed at Miller Hall. These signs will be similar to those seen around campus and will provide information to campus residents and visitors. 

“Ideally, it would be wonderful to collaborate with talented artists on campus to provide their visual impression of that planet,” Virani said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a sphere of the correct size. It would be great to simply begin with the name of the planet — say Mars — and then use that as inspiration to lead the artist wherever [they] may decide to go.”

Virani first began discussing this project with Jennifer Mangan, a geology professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Liberal Studies, shortly after becoming director of the planetarium.  

“We wanted to increase the visibility of science on campus, provide an opportunity for the thousands of people who visit JMU and our planetarium every year to get a very real sense of the size scale of our own Solar System and to learn how important science and engineering are in our robotic exploration of it,” Virani said.  

Virani estimates the project will cost roughly $15,000, which is less than the scale model of the solar system on the National Mall that, according to Virani, cost tens of thousands of dollars. Once all of the funds are gathered and construction can begin, it is expected to take less than a semester to complete. For now, however, the exact start date is still unknown and depends on when they receive another grant.

Christian Scully, a freshman computer science major, was unfamiliar with the project but believes it will positively impact the community and will be another reason for prospective students to apply to JMU.

“It would be great for someone to walk on the campus and see that,” Scully said. “I think that would definitely be an eye-catching thing for people applying to JMU. If I had seen that when I was applying, I would have been like ‘wow, that’s pretty cool.’”

Other students, including Michaela Kiehl, a sophomore management major and a student operator at the John C. Wells Planetarium, think the project will garner attention about the universe.

“Not very many people know much about [our solar system] and I feel like if you know something about it then you may actually find out that you’re interested in it,” Kiehl said. “So just kind of having that awareness, just a little bit of it, can kind of help your interest in it.”  

The mystery of space is alluring to some students, such as Derek Anderson, a senior math major. Anderson also works at the planetarium as a student operator.

“A lot of people don’t realize how big the solar system is, especially in relation to the size of the planets,” Anderson said. “It will give people very good insight as to how much space is between all of the planets.”

Virani believes the project could spark something new in those who see it. 

“At a time when this country has an enormous difficulty in inspiring the next generation of American scientists and engineers, we hope this model is a small flame that grows into a beacon for those that visit,” Virani said.

Contact Chris Hogan at hogan3cm@dukes.jmu.edu