Outside the newly constructed Howard Astronomical League Observatory, HALO for short, visitors begin their 0.4-mile journey through space at the sun. (Andrew Michaels/BSMG staff)
For Glenelg High School senior Colin Brinster, the sky wasn't the limit but the beginning for his Eagle Scout service project. What blossomed from an experience with a telescope transformed into membership in the Howard Astronomical League and then a project to bring the solar system's eight planets to Alpha Ridge Park in Marriottsville, where visitors are immersed in a skillfully designed scale model.
Outside the newly constructed Howard Astronomical League Observatory, HALO for short, visitors begin their 0.4-mile journey through space at the sun. The walk's loop around the park represents more than three billion miles between the Sun and dwarf planet Pluto, with every three feet equivalent to four million miles.
Each celestial body is represented with a designated panel of high-resolution photos and information about its unique features, such as the Sun's core temperature of 27 million degrees Fahrenheit. The information is translated into Braille and trees are planted behind each panel.
HALO, which opened in 2015, provides a deeper look into space using a 15-foot-diameter dome equipped with the restored Paul S. Watson telescope, a 12-inch Newtonian telescope, and a library of donated books. Other amenities at the 72-acre park include a target archery range, a regulation-size hockey rink, two tennis courts, three baseball diamonds, two multipurpose fields and two playgrounds.
The 18-year-old Eagle Scout said his project collaboration began with the county's Recreation and Parks Department and Joel Goodman, HAL's events and outreach coordinator, after he became interested in astronomy during his sophomore year.
"I had a telescope at home and it had been put in the basement and never used," said Brinster, a Glenelg resident. "One day, I pulled it out and did my best to set it up based on information I found online. I put it on the Moon and I was just so fascinated with the detail I could get on something that I had just pulled out of the basement."
His high school's astronomy club had dissolved following its advisor's departure from the school system, he said, but with help from two friends, Brinster reached out to Goodman to take the advisory position and formed a new astronomy club. He later joined HAL as one of its youngest members.
While Brinster's new-found interest strengthened his desire to become an Eagle Scout, Goodman said he wanted to create a permanent solar system walk to complement the park's observatory.
"When the Robinson Nature Center first opened, I helped them get started with the planetarium," said Goodman, who is also chairman of Howard County Recreation and Parks Advisory Board. "When they had an Astronomy Day, I put together this kind of solar system walk using laminated sheets and we stuck them in the ground with tomato stakes."
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The league works closely with the Robinson Nature Center, in Columbia, featuring talks with local astronomers and space scientists as well as public star parties throughout the year, where families can take a closer look at the stars and planets.
John Byrd, director of Recreation and Parks, said their partnership dates back to the mid-1990s with the nature center's planning committee. HAL members assisted in the conceptual design for the NatureSphere, Goodman said, and became more involved with volunteer-guided programs.
Goodman said he discussed the permanent solar system walk project with Brinster, who moved forward with the idea. Brinster received help installing the walk from other Scouts in Troop 793, and donations of the site and permits from Recreation and Parks and planet photos from the National Science Foundation.
The contributor behind the project's Braille component was the Friends of Max Cowan Fund, which Goodman and his wife, Sally Ann Lentz, started shortly after Lentz's son died from a rare heart infection in 2008. Cowan died suddenly before his senior year at River Hill High School, but is remembered for his efforts of engagement and inclusion.
"He would've just been really happy about this project of getting everyone involved and getting out there," Goodman said. "By adding the solar system walk and the observatory, it gives us a 'center of astronomy' in Howard County. HAL's goal is when people think of astronomy, they think of coming out to Alpha Ridge Park."
Sykesville residents Mark and Megan Mathis said they heard about the solar system walk opening and were excited to bring their 11-year-old daughter, Hailey Bowser.
"I think it's interesting. It's good for kids," said Megan Mathis. Hailey said her favorite stop was Pluto.
As Recreation and Parks moves forward with new project ideas, Byrd said they continue incorporating educational features into county parks. In addition to Alpha Ridge, he said, nature lovers can enjoy an environmental interpretative trail and panels at Ellicott City's Meadowbrook Park, and a historic interpretative trail and panels along Columbia's Patuxent Branch Trail.
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"It's a convenient opportunity to educate people about the parks that they have, the features that we're trying to protect and some of the wildlife and plant life that exist in the world around us," Byrd said. "It just seems to be the right thing to do when people are out in nature."
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At Alpha Ridge Park, the solar system walk combines perfectly with the nearby observatory for an educational astronomical theme, he said.
One goal of the solar system walk was to educate people about how far apart the planets are, Brinster added, with the Sun, Mercury and Venus closer together than Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The Eagle Scout said he believes they succeeded.
"I really enjoyed the accessibility of it and that it can inspire people of all ages," Brinster said. "If a kid came out, did the walk and was impressed by it, they may become interested in astronomy.