Model of the Solar System - the Chiricahua Mountains

Humans have been observing and recording the sky for thousands of years and astronomy continues to be a popular activity.  The boot heel of New Mexico and the San Simon Valley on the east side of the Chiricahua Mountains have some of the darkest skies in the lower 48.  As a consequence there are several online telescope rental observatories as well as several communities devoted to amateur astronomy in the area.  In fact the landscape is dotted with private observatories.  But the current activity is nothing new.  Evidence from previous cultures, specifically the Mimbres, suggests that astronomy was a popular activity a thousand years ago.  In addition to pottery showing astronomical events, prehistoric observatories have also been described in New Mexico.

One of the hallmarks of early prehistoric observatories was the effort to tie astronomical observations to earthly events, specifically these early observatories were used to measure seasonal changes.  Using building alignments or specifically designed structures humans have created tools to visually display aspects or changes in the sky.

This idea of visually tying astronomical observations to the earth can be extended and in the process it helps solve a problem.  How to represent the scale of the solar system in terms everyone can grasp.  The solar system is a big place but distances in the millions and billions of miles makes little intuitive sense.  For example, the distance from the Sun to Neptune, the last of the major planets, is an average of 2.8 billion miles, but how far is that?  It is possible to put the planetary distances into perspective by using the profile of the Chiricahua Mountains as the basis for a scale model of the solar system.  Below is a photograph of the Chiricahua Mountains with each planet placed at it's average relative distance from the Sun.  If Portal Peak represents the Sun then the 8 major planets stretch along the ridge lines up to about Cochise Head. If Pluto is included the map stretches from Portal Peak to Dunn Springs Mountain requiring a multi-image panorama to span the distance.  It is interesting to note in the photograph below that the inner solar system (the first 4 planets) fits neatly into the cusp on the north side (right) of Portal Peak, while the rest of the planets in the solar system are much further out and fit on the ridge-line several miles north.

star gazing at the painted pony resort
Scale Model of the Solar System based on the profile of the Chiricahua Mountains


  1. The Solar System of the Chiricahua Mountains is a great idea. Showing the planets in a different way. We have many telescopes in the area to view the solar system.

  2. Thank you. It is a very different way of presenting the solar system.