A September Galaxy Ride

Posted by Korey Haynes
on Thursday, September 03, 2015

Lucianne Walkowicz will lead a bike ride from the Adler Planetarium to the Andromeda Galaxy in St. Louis, Missouri. // David Miller (Adler Planetarium)
On September 18, a group of astronomers and educators will set off on bikes from their home base at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, scant feet from the shore of Lake Michigan, and travel south for 300 miles (500 kilometers) on the historic Route 66 bike trail. They’ll end their trip in St. Louis, Missouri — or the Andromeda Galaxy, depending on how you reckon it. Along the way, they’ll make six stops, including the Moon (Joliet, Illinois), Kuiper Belt (Normal), and Alpha Centauri system (Lincoln). And at all their stops, they'd like you to join them.

Dubbing the trip “Galaxy Ride,” Adler astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz came up with the idea in July while she was biking to Illinois Beach State Park, about 50 miles (80km) north of Chicago. During breaks, she found herself wishing she had her “I’m an astronomer: Ask me anything!” sign that she uses around the planetarium. A chance conversation with a fellow cyclist, a Baltimore chemistry teacher on a truly epic bike trip across the country to Portland, Oregon, further set her to thinking about the vast distances of space.

“As I was biking back,” she recounts, “I thought: Wouldn’t it be cool if we extended planets on the path?” Adler, like many other similar sites, offers a scaled model of the solar system along their lakeshore trail. She continues: “We could use a long-haul bike ride to map out cosmic distance and give people a sense of where they are in the universe. Of course, the catch is that things are really far from Earth!”

To create a physically realistic bike trip, Walkowicz turned to cosmologist Richard Gott’s logarithmic scale of the universe to plot her course. In a log scale, every step out is 10 times the length of the step before it, which keeps astronomical distances accurate while also making them more manageable. Then she turned to the Adler for support.

“Because I work at an awesome place,” she tells me, “they said yes.”

Walkowicz and her team of cycling astronomers will bike the scaled galactic distance over eight days, stopping in the evenings to perform free and interactive astronomy activities at libraries and schools as they pass through. They’ll be accompanied by a van to haul telescopes and equipment. “We even have a drone in the mix,” Walkowicz adds, promising pictures and video of the events on social media. “They won’t let me touch the drone yet,” she admits. “I need to get trained on the drone. But it should be great.”

Along the way, she and her team will share the immensity of the cosmos and the necessity of log scales to portray astronomical distances. “I work on studying exoplanets — planets around other stars,” Walkowicz says. “And a lot of times I get into conversations about distance because people think that when we find another planet like Earth, we’re going to move there. So you have to give people a sense of how big space is and talk about the difficulties of space travel. So we’re using cosmic distance as the anchor for the whole ride.”

But each stop also will feature activities about the corresponding location on the galactic scale, from the Moon out to neighboring Andromeda, as well as chances to look through the telescopes the bikers will bring along. You can check out their schedule online and join them if you happen to live near the path. If not, Walkowicz promises they’ll be sharing their ride on social media, so you can follow along their official Twitter and Instagram feeds, @adlerplanet, or follow #adlergalaxyride.

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