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Colorado Springs man envisions a galaxy not far away

March 9, 2017 Updated: March 10, 2017 at 5:34 am
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The idea has floated in Jesse Collette's mind for about three years, ever since his job took him to Alaska where he came by a big yellow orb protruding from the ground, representing the sun.

He was at the head of Anchorage's Light Speed Planet Walk, a scaled solar system that guides visitors about 17 miles from the blazing star to Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and lastly Pluto - all relatively sized and placed in order of each other.

The space between each is based on a leisurely pace equated to the speed of light; Planet Walkers in Anchorage take roughly eight minutes to arrive at Earth from the sun, the same time it takes for light to travel between our planet and its star. It takes about five hours and 42 minutes to end at Pluto.

"Just the scale of it," Collette, 64, said of the display. "When you see the model, you realize the solar system is the Sun, and we're just balls of dust like a flea on the back of an elephant."

And now, he's attempting to bring the concept to his home in Colorado Springs.

On Thursday he presented to the city's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services advisory board his vision to place a sun measuring 21 feet in diameter in America the Beautiful Park downtown, with smaller planets arrayed along the Santa Fe Trail. He envisions Pluto would be a few miles south of Monument.

"It all comes down to the success of the fundraising," said Matt Mayberry, the head of Colorado Springs' cultural services who explained the city's only role with the project would be in helping determine locations. "It comes down to how exciting and compelling the project is, and I think it's certainly exciting. I think it fits well within our community, which has a deep connection to space."

Last week, Collette showed his concept to the Colorado Springs Astronomical Society at the Space Foundation. And he's also given a presentation to the city's Public Art Commission, another entity along with the Parks Board from which he'll need approval. He also expects he'll have to get the green light from El Paso County and possibly Monument and the Air Force Academy, which oversees a portion of the Santa Fe Trail where he thinks Neptune could land.

Planet Walk Colorado Springs, with a small board that Collette chairs, incorporated earlier this week with the expectation of contracting with a 501(c)(3) organization that would handle accounting.

"Once that happens, we can start fundraising in earnest," Collette said.

As for cost, "it's a big I-don't-know," he said. He knows $518,000 went into Anchorage's Planet Walk, but that was built in 2006. His idea is to recruit local businesses and groups to "sponsor" the planets, each with informational signage.

He told the Parks Board Thursday that the plan was to create an endowment from the donations that would pay for future maintenance. Vandalism, he said, could be an issue - especially to the big sun.

"It's a really neat initiative," parks Director Karen Palus said. "I think there's a really neat connection for kids to be able to understand and learn more about what's out there."

An engineer who spent his career overseeing environmental projects and designing power plants, Collette remembers reading space books as a boy and being drawn to the sciences. He hopes a Planet Walk in Colorado Springs would serve as a similar inspiration. He'd like to see it built in two years.

"Obviously, it stimulates curiosity," he said. "But I think it also puts our civilization, the human race, indeed the entire Earth into perspective, stark perspective."

He told the parks board: "Maybe that would humble us."

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