There has never been a better time to explore our planet's place in the universe. Detailed images showing the barren surface of Mars and the majestic rings and enigmatic moons of Saturn have fuelled a yearning for more. And the successful launch of the space probes Venus Express and New Horizons to our sister planet and Pluto respectively, have provided inspiration for us all to revisit our local space environment.
To promote these advances in the exploration of the solar system, we have launched a new project, Spaced Out. Our main aims are to promote the UK's major involvement in space research and education, and to encourage pupils into science-based careers.
A dedicated team of artists, astronomers and science teachers has been overseeing the installation of the first phase of what will eventually become a network of 18 sculptures representing the solar system. The planets, Halley's comet and an assortment of asteroids will be created at scaled distances from a stunning representation of the Sun at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire.
This impressive model will be the world's largest representation of the solar system. On the scale of 1:15 million, Mercury is sited in Holmes Chapel in Cheshire (four kilometres from Jodrell Bank), the Earth in Macclesfield, Saturn in Lancaster and Pluto in Aberdeen. By coincidence, the planet Uranus is hosted by the William Herschel Museum in Bath at the exact spot where the real planet was discovered in 1781. Most of the objects are, however, located in school grounds, where the sites will act as a focus for school activities.
Many pupils have been involved in the interpretation and design of individual models.
Representing the solar system by a network of installations stretching from Cornwall to the Shetland Isles means that, on the same scale, the nearest star would be six times further away than the Moon. The Spaced Out project aims to bring inconceivable distances down to a size that most of us can understand. At the same time, we are trying to inspire students to pursue their studies of science, with the hope that they may be the space scientists and astronomers of the next generation.
Once it is complete, enthusiasts will tour Britain to visit all 18 sites.
However, you can complete a virtual tour right now by visiting Spaced Out website. The site contains factual and anecdotal information, as well as links to UK websites where pupils can access more detailed facts and figures. Primary and secondary teachers can also download a range of free teaching resources.
Nigel Marshall is project director of Spaced Out www.spacedout-uk.co.uk