A glowing silicone sun measuring 2.3 metres in diameter and a pinhead-size Pluto have been brought down to earth in an extraordinary scale model of the solar system aimed at giving the public a true sense of the huge size of space.
The six-mile (10km) riverside sculpture trail opens in Derry on Friday as part of Unboxed, the £120m government-backed celebration of creativity that spans the UK over the coming months.
Our Place in Space is one of 10 free-to-visit installations drawing on arts, science, engineering, technology and maths in the festival, originally commissioned in 2018 by Theresa May.
Although some derided it as a “festival of Brexit”, its chief creative officer, Martin Green, has described Unboxed as the UK’s “biggest and most ambitious public creative programme”.
The solar system trail, which will later move to other locations in Northern Ireland and to Cambridge, has been designed by the artist and author Oliver Jeffers, with support from leading astrophysicist Prof Stephen Smartt.
Each planet model, hand-painted by Jeffers, sits within a colourful arched sculpture placed along the trail in scale with the vast distance between each planet in the solar system.
“It makes the point that there’s an awful lot of space in space,” said Jeffers, whose award-winning children’s books include How To Catch a Star and Lost and Found.
The trail – plus an accompanying augmented reality app, live events and a book written and illustrated by Jeffers to be published in the autumn – also highlights how the people of Earth have fought over space.
“For centuries, we’ve defined ourselves by who we are and who we’re not. Which side we choose, on what ground we stand, who and what we fight for,” said Jeffers.
“We hope to encourage people to reflect on humanity’s place within the universe, what it means to exist on Earth, the only place known to harbour life, and how to sustain such life for many generations to come.
“With distance comes perspective – and what happens to our perspective on everything when we look back at Earth from space?”
The model of Earth is 2.2cm, compared with the planet’s actual diameter of 7,917 miles (12,742km) – a scale of 591 million to one. “We settled on the scale pretty quickly when we realised 4mm was about as small as we could go for Pluto,” said Smartt.
In a sign of public enthusiasm for space projects, 1,000 people have registered for an attempt in Derry on Saturday to beat the current record of 257 for the largest number of people dressed as astronauts in one place at the same time. Another 500 people are on a waiting list.
Green, who is also chief creative officer of this year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, said: “Our Place in Space is a wonderful way to explore our solar system right here on Earth, with Oliver’s beautiful sculptures of the planets adding a new dimension to the landscape in which they are placed.
“Like other Unboxed projects, it’s a fabulous collision between art, science and technology and asks questions about who we are and our relationship to each other.”
Our Place in Space runs until 16 October at three locations in Northern Ireland: Derry (22 April – 22 May), Divis and Black Mountain (30 July – 28 August) and the North Down Coastal route (17 September – 16 October). It will be in Cambridge 30 July – 28 August.