University of Colorado Boulder graduate student Jimmy Negus , is campaigning to upgrade the existing scale model solar system.

The first interaction Jimmy Negus had on the University of Colorado Boulder’s campus was with a black granite pedestal with a small model of Saturn that is part of a larger scale model solar system.

He said the model contributed to his decision to enroll in the university’s astrophysics graduate program. A Ph.D. student, he also saw that the model was outdated, weathered and in some spots damaged while using it as a teaching tool for his Intro to Astronomy class.

The one- to-10-billion scale model, which starts near Fiske Planetarium and extends to Colorado Avenue, was installed 32 years ago and features information that is no longer accurate. Pluto, for example, is still a planet according to the model, not a dwarf planet as Pluto was dubbed in 2006.

Wanting to update it, Negus started a campaign about a year and a half ago to raise the $60,000, plus delivery and installation costs, needed to buy the modern Voyage Mark II scale model.

“I find space fascinating,” he said. “I want to free that knowledge and make it accessible. This is another way to do outreach and to get people on campus.”

Jeffrey Bennett, a Boulder astrophysicist and author who is helping with the current project, came up with the idea for the original scale model while he was a graduate student at CU Boulder.

“We wanted to help people understand what space is really like,” Bennett said. “It gives you a perspective on our planet you can’t get really any other way.”

The current model, designed and built at CU, starts with the Sun, a gold sphere on top of a black granite pyramid. The planets are displayed on black granite pedestals. All the inner solar system planets are pinhead-size or smaller on the one- to-10-billion scale. Pluto is the size of a dust speck. Walking the full length of the model takes about 10 minutes.

The model was refurbished only once, in 1992. Since then, there’s been damage from weather, collisions and repositioning.

The CU model provided the impetus for the Smithsonian Institution, the Challenger Center for Space Science Education and NASA to create Voyage, a much more dramatic scale model solar system, according to Bennett.

The Voyage model is on display at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as well as three other locations around the country. But that model is expensive, with a price tag of about $300,000. CU Boulder would be the first to install the newly created, more affordable Voyage Mark II model.

“Just like CU was the prototype for the original Voyage model, we want CU to be the first to install the new version,” Bennett said. “I’m particularly excited by the fact that it’s a graduate student taking the lead on this since it’s something I did as a grad student. I just find that really cool.”

Bennett designed the original model under the direction of professor Tom Ayres, a senior research associate at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy who is also helping with the current project.

Others working on the project are Fiske Planetarium Director John Keller, Sommers-Bausch Observatory Director Seth Hornstein, Arts and Sciences Council Chairman Stephen Mojzsis and media professor Teri Rueb.

Rueb is working on a project to create a cell phone app to work with the model, while CU art students are planning a large mural of the asteroid belt at the underpass at Regent Drive, denoting the transition from the inner solar system to the outer solar system.

Along with adding the asteroid belt, the new model will include the Voyager spacecraft at the location near Neptune where it snapped the famous “pale blue dot” photo of Earth.

So far, Negus said, he’s raised more than half the money needed for the project, an estimated total of about $112,000. Bennett contributed $30,000. Other contributions include $4,000 from astrophysics faculty and $6,000 from the Chancellor’s Office.

The original model was dedicated in memory of Challenger astronaut and University of Colorado alum Ellison S. Onizuka and the shuttle’s six other astronauts. In 1986, Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff.

The new model would be dedicated to both the Challenger and Columbia astronauts. The Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 disintegrated upon atmospheric entry, killing all seven crew members.

Negus said his goal is to start installation of the new model in the summer of 2020. The hope, he added, is that CU’s installation will inspire other colleges, planetariums and museums to add the Voyage solar model to their campuses.

“Space is awesome,” he said. “This is a way for us to understand our place in the solar system.”

For more information or to donate to the project, email Negus at

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