UW-Madison: With Ceres back in orbit, Planet Trek blasts off for the bike season

CONTACT: Jim Lattis, 608-263-0360, [email protected]

MADISON – The Rodney Dangerfield of celestial bodies is back.

Ceres is a dwarf planet ambiguously added to the roster of planets in our solar system by the International Astronomical Union in 2006, the same year Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet status. But Ceres is still considered by some to be an asteroid, giving it a dual personality and no doubt confounding any student pondering a report on the solar system.

As a component of Planet Trek Dane County, the scale solar system that stretches from the Sun (Monona Terrace) to Pluto (Mount Horeb), Ceres seems to have fared no better.

Over the past several years, the framed, illustrated panel for Ceres, one of 11 that make up Planet Trek, has disappeared three times from its orbit on the bike trail just south of the Charter Street Heating and Cooling Plant on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. The most recent disappearing act occurred in April, not long after it was installed for the 2013 biking season.

“The first one was gone in two weeks in 2009,” notes Jim Lattis, director of UW-Madison’s Space Place, which developed the Planet Trek scale solar system with support from the Friends of the Washburn Observatory and in cooperation with the Madison Parks Department and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “In 2012, Ceres disappeared in August.”

Planet Trek Dane County is one of a number of scale solar systems in the world, and is one of the largest in the United States. The trek begins at Monona Terrace, where there is a panel with information about the sun as well as an interactive sundial.

The remaining 10 illustrated panels with information on Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto are dispersed along Dane County bicycle trails, with the distances between planets reduced to a scale of 200 million to one. Pluto, the most distant planet from the sun, is 23 miles from Monona Terrace along the Military Ridge Bicycle Trail in Mount Horeb.

“The idea was develop a scale solar system in a way that integrates fun science with a physical activity,” explains Lattis. “All of our planets are accessible by bike, and they are all handicapped accessible.”

A new Ceres panel is now back in place, and with luck the little planet will remain in orbit until the panels are packed away for the winter next fall.

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-Terry Devitt, 608-262-8282, [email protected]