Who Needs Brown Signs

For the Virtual Solar System Drive?


For years, the first thing that people reported back to me about the Virtual Solar System was “We thought we saw a big billboard with something like a planet on it, do you know what it was?”


Inevitably they were driving fast on narrow country roads, without a place to pull over and only saw a blur on the side of the road. It could simply have been a part of their imagination.


But it wasn’t.



Indeed, they had seen a big planet on a billboard on the side of the road and if they were lucky they may have noticed it early in their drive, and been curious enough to keep an eye out for another, and another and possibly 8 more from the first.


The Virtual Solar System Drive was the brainchild of Warrumbungle Council and Siding Spring Observatory, with the aim of creating a tourist destination that added another feather to the bow of Australia’s astronomy capital.


9 virtual planets – yes it includes Pluto – lead you on the five roads from Dubbo, Narrabri, and Mudgee to the virtual sun represented by the dome of Australia’s biggest telescope at Siding Spring Observatory. The drive, from whichever starting point you take, is to the scale of distance and size with the real solar system. This isn’t novel, there are others around the world such as the one in Sweden that has the Ericson Dome as its heliocentric starting point, but this is the biggest and the only one of its kind on a road network. This one allows you to travel through space pacing out the relative distances from the sun with the planets just where you’d find them in space.



Now, Jupiter the biggest of them all, is well worth a stop just outside of Coonabarabran. As you stand under it in a shadow, looking up through the huge belly of the planet, imagine just how big this Gas Giant really is in our solar system. And then think, the real Jupiter is 38 million times bigger!


What the virtual solar system impresses is just how much of nothing there is in space… there is lots and lots of space between one planet and the next, even if some of them are huge. It also shows just how special our blue dot of Planet Earth is and our relative proximity to the sun.


So, why is it that so few travellers know little more than the blurry image of a billboard as it passes swiftly behind them in their rear-view mirror? Well, it probably comes down to the lack of brown tourist signs that normally raise drivers’ awareness of upcoming points of touristic interest. These were never implemented on the VSS. Why not?


“Brown signs are implemented for an established tourist attraction. Not to establish an attraction.” Said the appropriate official.


During covid, between cancelling international tours and wondering when the borders would open again, I decided to write a tour app. Talking to audiences in Coonabarabran about the Dark Sky Park, I had thrown the idea out there a few times that a location-triggered app that could warn the driver of the planets before they whizzed past them, would be a winner. With my newfound time, I discovered Voicemap and set to make it work, with commentary from Fred Watson and myself.


[As you listen to the commentary and the various discoveries within it, you may like to imagine Fred and me sitting in our bedroom with a blanket over our heads and the laptops on our knees, narrating the text and dampening the outside world noise for your listening pleasure!]


For whatever reason, if you find yourself on the road from Narrabri to Siding Spring observatory or are based in ‘Coona’ you could lash out on a $7.50 app, and not only help establish a brown-sign worthy tourist attraction but maybe even learn something about our Solar System along the way.


Enjoy!


Oh, and PS – if you do buy it, could we ask two favours?


1. Make sure you download the app before you go or it won’t work, and you’ll be terribly disappointed, and

2. Could you rate it afterwards? Nicely, of course.