PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — For nearly 20 years, thousands of people have traveled to Aroostook County for the sole purpose of seeing the largest 3D model of the solar system in the western hemisphere.
Now the Maine Office of Tourism and the University of Maine at Presque Isle are taking steps to draw even more visitors to the Maine Solar System Model, which stretches 100 miles from the Sun on the UMPI campus to the Eris dwarf planet in Topsfield.
The university used a $7,500 grant from the Maine Office of Tourism’s enterprise marketing program to create a new website, promotional video and brochure, the latter of which will be distributed to 62 Chamber of Commerce offices, the state’s four visitor centers and tourist kiosks in Kittery, Yarmouth and New Hampshire.
The increased awareness of the Solar System Model comes at a time when many visitors are looking for family-friendly, socially distanced activities, UMPI geology professor Kevin McCartney said.
The to-scale display includes models of the nine major planets and three dwarf planets made of fiberglass and pressed foam, some of which can be viewed along Route 1 in Aroostook County.
Though the new website contains the same history and information about the model, it has added Google Maps of the planets’ locations and a brief video emphasizing the scavenger hunt nature of the display. It is also more compatible with smartphones and tablets.
The model was completed in 2003 and has since become a major destination for people visiting Aroostook County, according to McCartney. One reason is the scientific accuracy of the model’s placement of each planet.
“In our model, one mile equals one astronomic unit, the distance from the Earth to the Sun, or 93,000,000 miles,” McCartney said. “Only one model in the world, in Sweden, has a Saturn larger than our Saturn of 10 feet across the rings [in Westfield].”
The planets were created with the help of more than 700 volunteers and donors, including high school vocational and community college students and local repair garages.
Due to the outdoor, self-guided nature of the model, no concrete data exists on the number of tourists who have visited the planets. But McCartney, who runs the Old Iron Inn Bed and Breakfast in Caribou with his wife Kate, has met numerous people who have come to Aroostook County just to see the model.
“Many people, including solar system model enthusiasts, make reservations without knowing about my personal involvement,” McCartney said. “They tell me that our model is the best in the world.”
There were fewer people visiting the model during the first six months of the pandemic, but the last six months have seen more interest than usual, he said.
As more people seek to visit rural areas of Maine during the pandemic, bringing people to attractions like the Solar System Model will become more important than ever, Hannah Collins, senior tourism officer for the Maine Office of Tourism, said.
“UMPI’s [new marketing] efforts show what a great asset the Solar System Model is to Aroostook County,” Collins said. “It’s something that can complement what else Aroostook has to offer to visitors.”