Retiree, 80, builds glowing solar system model in Ont. field

The black wooden boxes look rather nondescript, especially in daylight.

Models resemble planets seen with the naked eye, or through telescope at night

Randy Groundwater gives a tour of the solar system model

5 years ago
Tour of Hallam Observatory to-scale solar system model 1:52

There's a little black wooden box in a farm field in Comber, Ont., about 50 kilometres east of Windsor. Spaced at impeccably proportioned distances around it, there are six other little boxes just like it. 

After dark, not one of seemingly innocuous boxes is like the other. 

One emits a glowing reddish orange circle, bigger than a tennis ball. 

A model of sun after dark. (David Panton)

Another projects a royal blue circle, as tiny as a pin head. 

Earth and the moon light up at night. (David Panton)

It took David Panton, 80, five months to make all seven, each representing a body in the solar system — the sun, Mercury, Venus, the Earth and moon. Those are placed around the Hallam Observatory porch, run by the The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada — Windsor Center. 

Further afield, shrouded in trees, Jupiter and its four Galilean moons, and Saturn with its rings, shine bright, all powered by solar lights. 

'Almost by accident'

A look at the making of Saturn and its rings. (David Panton)

Panton, a retired mechanical engineer, had been dabbling in electronics in his garage shop for decades. 

"This particular project happened almost by accident," he told CBC News. "I thought it would be fun to make a sun and earth for the observatory that would light up at night, just for the sheer heck of it. Damned if it didn't turn out to be of interest the first night out." 

Since the observatory members hold public tours, Panton said a little girl saw the earth model one night and requested more planets to complete the solar system. 

"She was absolutely fascinated by this model of the earth," he said. "Five months later [I finished the planets], after all matter of experimentation with each of the different planets, how far away they are, how big they should be, the optics inside."

Not only are they all lit from the inside, some with fibre optic cables, the models are in true likeness to the actual planets in the night sky, seen through the human eye or a telescope. 

The distance between the planets are all to scale as well. And that's why Panton had to stop at Saturn. To keep the solar system at scale, he would have nearly run out of room in the field if he tried to include Uranus, Neptune and the dwarf planet Pluto.

Models of Venus, foreground, Mercury and the sun at Hallam Observatory. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

"I'm surprised how well it turned out," said Panton. "Maybe nobody would give a damn, but it's added to the experience. You can now gain a feeling for the solar system we live in." 

That's the whole point of the project, according to Randy Groundwater, president of the Windsor centre. 

"All of a sudden, it gives you a different perspective on your life and what goes around around you," Groundwater said.

Vastness of the universe

A model of the sun during daylight. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

"This is the only place in the region you can come and get a sense of the vastness of the universe we live in," Groundwater said. "When you're standing out here on a clear night, with the enthusiasm of people around you, you feel like a community of humans, on a planet.

As an example, Groundwater said if all the planets in our solar system were placed to scale on a pinhead, the nearest star to us would be about five kilometres away. 

"You realize you're on a planet that's moving around the sun and through the galaxy and the universe. It's an amazing thing. It doesn't matter the age of the person. They can be really small to the elderly. We all have the same feeling because we're all human," he said. 

More visitors

A look at the Hallam Observatory near Comber, Ont. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

Groundwater also told CBC the model has attracted more visitors since it was constructed two years ago. 

Now, on many clear nights in the summer, 40 to 60 people head out to the observatory, walk from the sun, to Mercury, Venus, Earth, then Mars, Jupiter and the almost 200 metres to Saturn. 

Earth and its moon in the daylight. (Lisa Xing/CBC)