Walking to Pluto, Step 4

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Step 4:  Go Farther

Pluto & Charon in Full Color (Image Credit:  NASA)

Pluto & Charon in Full Color (Image Credit: NASA)

New Horizons has flown past Pluto successfully, and is now on the way to check out other Kuiper Belt objects.  Here’s Corwin Wray’s simulation (made with Pixel Gravity, his software for doing multi-body models on your laptop), which concludes with a wistful look back at our Solar System:

 

Like New Horizons, you can explore further too.

It’s worth your while to start by tracking down Guy Ottewell. Yes, he’s on the web, folks, and you can connect with him! Start with his Home Page, which includes all of his books, including the latest version of the book form of his Thousand-Yard Model as well as innovative ideas in several fields, from voting systems to landscape design:    He has a Facebook Page on which he’s been more active as of 2014, sharing art and world news:    And he joined Twitter in 2013 and tweets regularly, especially on human-rights topics, which should interest anyone who’s become aware of just how small our human community is in this huge universe: find him as simply @GuyOttewell on the tweet machine.  A few of his books are available at Amazon, but take care—the latest updates are best obtained by purchasing directly from the author.

 

Of course, you might want to follow some of informational links given in the workbook pdf’s for this project:

For more information on both the inner and outer planets: http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/charchart.cfm

For more information on the asteroid belt:   http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/profile.cfm?Object=Asteroids&Display=OverviewLong

For more on Kuiper-belt objects and Pluto:   http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/profile.cfm?Object=KBOs and also http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/profile.cfm?Object=Dwarf

And of course we have an active mission beyond Pluto right now.  It’s an APL project, so they have a great page on the program:  http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/

Read about the Pioneers’ adventures here http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/news/2013/pioneer11-40-years.html#.UzDJ44WwX_0 and here http://www.nasa.gov/topics/history/features/Pioneer_10_40th_Anniversary.html#.UzDKb4WwX_0

Discover more about the Voyager missions at: http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/where/index.html

And find out where all the system-leaving spacecraft—as well as Earth-orbiting satellites, the planets, and other system objects–are right now: http://www.heavens-above.com/SolarEscape.aspx?lat=0&lng=0&loc=Unspecified&alt=0&tz=UCT

For more on the Oort cloud, see http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/profile.cfm?Object=KBOs

 

Lots of other interesting links:

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory presents Guy Ottewell’s original project description from 1989 online:

A wonderful collection of poems and quotes related to astronomy, gathered by Michele Stark, an astronomer with a wonderful page she created while lecturing in physics at the University of Michigan, Flint. l  You’ll also find astronomy labs she’s created for non-majors interested in the field, under “Outreach and Education

A relatively exhaustive listing of scale models in place around the world—most are designed for point-to-point driving or cycling tours, so scroll to the bottom portion of the list for walkable models, several of which are roughly on the same scale as that presented here. Check before you set out—some of these installations were only temporary, as part of larger events and some are virtual (i.e., online). I would like to imagine astronomy fans travelling to all of them, as baseball fans travel to all the major-league parks.

The National Center for Earth and Space Science’s “Voyage” program has a “somewhat” pricier scale model in Washington D.C. but also offers up lots of useful curriculum materials:   http://voyagesolarsystem.org/   Their program is fee-based, not by any means free, but it is very comprehensive and aims to involve parents, teachers, students, and their communities: http://journeythroughtheuniverse.org/home/home_default.html

You can keep track of the Voyager spacecraft in real time at http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/where/index.html   They’re in rapid motion—Voyager 1 is travelling at over 38 thousand miles per hour (over 17 km per second).

All about the sun (with a wonderful NASA graphic of a solar flare compared with the Earth): http://www.universetoday.com/94252/characteristics-of-the-sun/

A summary page on the Peppercorn Model at SpyHill Research, which also includes some links to interesting places: http://www.spy-hill.net/myers/peppercorn/

Why isn’t an AU exactly the same as Earth’s orbit any more? Sorry academics, the best answer is in Wikiland: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astronomical_unit

More about our Moon: http://www.universetoday.com/19677/diameter-of-the-moon/ By the way, Universe Today is a good site to follow!

Asteroid information for Wiki fans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid_belt

The Project Astro Notebook used to be sold as a huge expensive bulky (and still wonderful) binder. Soon, you’ll be able download at least some portions in pdf format from the free government-sponsored education resources site eric.gov. However, for now your best bet is to buy the DVD’s at http://astrosociety.org/astroshop/index.php?p=product&id=577&parent=1

While you are waiting for your DVD to arrive, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific has a page full of resources for you, including a few of the Project Astro activities. http://www.astrosociety.org/education/astronomy-resource-guides/

If you actually need to shop for marbles, by all means the best place for working on this project would be “Moon Marbles”, at http://www.moonmarble.com/c-78-shooters-approx-19mm-or-34.aspx

Astronomer Phil Plait summarizes the latest estimates on stars with planets beyond our own system: http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/11/04/earth_like_exoplanets_planets_like_ours_may_be_very_common.html

Why use a FIFA 4 or 5 ball? Well, the dimensions are good for it. But any similar-sized ball will do for this project…like the tennis-ball-patterned playground ball I have.  Guy Ottewell likes to use a bowling ball—but notes that it’s kind of heavy to lug around. http://www.achallenge.com/t-faq.aspx

A seemingly unrelated topic—watching for the bright flare of reflected sunlight from certain Earth-orbiting satellites: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/washtech/features/iridiumqa.htm The interviewer on that page is talking to Chris Peat, whose website contains a wealth of information on satellites, the solar system, and the positions of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft. http://www.heavens-above.com/?lat=0&lng=0&loc=Unspecified&alt=0&tz=UCT

Just to show how established walkable solar system models have become, here’s a typical promotion for a talk by Eric Myers of SUNY (see the GoogleMaps list below) and another talk summary that may inspire you to think about other ways of building a model https://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/event-view.cfm?Event_ID=44693   and http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=7&ved=0CGcQFjAG&url=http%3A%2F%2Fregionalaaptmeeting2013.weebly.com%2Fuploads%2F2%2F2%2F9%2F3%2F22939768%2Faapt_meeting.docx&ei=jaU5U5rvCqiIyAGK0YHwBw&usg=AFQjCNHl4_6jyF2UU_JJ7H9SrD6suXOhjA&sig2=MBKeDxFBGjHlVB2rk8n3wA&bvm=bv.63808443,d.aWc

A few places (courtesy of SpyHill Research’s page) where you can use GoogleMaps to follow a model:

> SUNY College at New Paltz, New York:  Map, KML

> Dutchess County Rail Trail, Morgan Lake, Poughkeepsie, New York:  Map, KML

> Riverfront City Park, Salem, Oregon:  Map, KML

> Walkway over the Hudson, between Poughkeepsie and Highland, NY:  Map, KML

> Marist College, Poughkeepsie, NY:  Map

 

For an insanely delicious solar-system project for any mad bakers in your circle, visit Rhiannon’s recipe on her cakecrumbs blog: http://cakecrumbs.me/2013/08/01/spherical-concentric-layer-cake-tutorial/ with some extra photos and video on waitwow http://www.waitwow.com/make-scientifically-accurate-cake-planets/

If you need more reassurance that science and math are not only fun but also funny, visit http://www.xkcd.com (but do prescreen before sharing with students—this webcomic does sometimes use “PG-13” language.

If you have already memorized all of Gary Larson’s Far Side comics, visit the science cartoon webring at http://jcdverha.home.xs4all.nl/scihum/webring.html

And of course, don’t forget to visit Science Cartoons Plus (http://www.sciencecartoonsplus.com/pages/gallery.php)

 

Materials shopping tips:

Pins with small round heads—look for beading pins—however, be aware that beading pins aren’t sharp, so pick up some ordinary pins as well. http://smile.amazon.com/Beadaholique-20-Piece-Ball-21-Gauge-1-5-Inch/dp/B00BBAXXYS/ref=sr_1_1?s=arts-crafts&ie=UTF8&qid=1396515591&sr=1-1&keywords=pins+2mm+head   For pin tips, any small sewing pin with a nice sharp tip will do. (Note that beading pins are not that sharp.)

For the jacks ball, you can pick up a jacks set anywhere. Online (e.g., www.orientaltrading.com , they’re often sold in party packs of a dozen sets. But any bouncy ball bigger than ¾” and no bigger than 1” in diameter will do the trick.

If you decide to buy a playground ball or soccer ball online, locate an air pump before your shipment arrives—they’re often shipped uninflated.

And if you buy on Amazon, be sure to sign up for smile.amazon.com first, so your purchases can support your favorite charity.

Walking to Pluto: Step 3

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Step 3: Making the Journey

If you skipped Part 1, then you need to know know that in this activity, you will build a scale model of the Solar System as far as Pluto. You will use familiar objects and easy, approximate measurements—mostly simply pacing off distances. This is not a project about being extremely precise; the goal is to develop a strong perception of just how big the solar system is and how small the planets are within that system.

For preparation, you need only to assemble the collection of properly-sized objects listed in the requirements table (See Step 2) and print out the “cheat sheet” you’ll carry on the Walk. A glance at a map of your local area will help you decide which way to take your expedition and to identify some landmarks to stand in for more-distant things like the far edge of the Oort Cloud.  To build your own interest and enjoy some discoveries of your own, check out some of the links I’ll include in the references section (Step 4).

You can feel free to substitute alternate model planets, using the scaled sizes as a guide; however, most of the items called for can be found in an average family home, borrowed from classroom parents, or purchased at a very modest outlay. While modern kids may not find the contents of kitchen spice jars terribly fascinating, using an allspice or peppercorn seed as your “Earth” model will give them a lifelong reference point–they’ll be smelling pumpkin pie or watching a chef grind pepper and that spark of memory will remind them of this project.

Because the scaled planets range from the size of a pin point to the size of a jacks ball, it also makes sense to attach each object to something larger, such as an inverted cup or a 4 by 6 index card. If you have access to sports equipment, the bright-colored cones often used for laying out a temporary playing field are helpful. You can position the planet-holder and also tape a “Please Leave Our Experiment Here” sign to the top of the cone. And the bright colors and signs help the explorers to look back and spot the distant planets. Again, be creative! There is no need to run out and buy sports equipment—any handy rock or a brick will do to keep your objects and notes in place.

Here's my Walk kit, ready to go.

Here’s my Walk kit, ready to go.

When reviewing the Cheat Sheet, you’ll see that this model describes our solar system as far as the outer edge of the Oort Cloud. However, to go all the way to the Oort Cloud in this model is a journey of 75 miles (100 km), so don’t expect to travel that far. Instead, as part of your preparation, identify a few local landmarks 1 or 2 miles from your start point and also pick some regional and further-off destinations to match the scaled distances for such key locales as the Oort Cloud, the heliopause, the estimated positions of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft, the far edge of the Kuiper belt, and our further neighbors in the Universe. If you’re too short on time, the Cheat Sheet includes some general destinations, but your own localized ones will be much more meaningful to the group. If your group won’t have time to walk all the way to Pluto, find out where Pluto would be in that locale and point ahead to that location before you do turn back.

Once in the classroom, before launching your exploratory mission, start with a quick review of the concept of scale. Regardless of your target age group, toys which are also scale models of cars or airplanes or trains are helpful examples. Quickly walk through a sample of numerical proportions to give a sense of how it goes when you are creating your own scale model: for instance, sketch on the board or a sheet of poster paper a rough scale drawing of the classroom room at 1 inch per foot (5 cm per m). Rather than slowing down the project with extra work, prepare for this session by making your own rough measurements of the classroom dimensions in advance—simply pace off the length and width and note any additional features to the room. Remember, the idea is to illustrate your point, not to create an architectural drawing.

Moving on to the Solar System, start with the Sun…an 8-inch-diameter playground ball or an ordinary soccer ball fits our scale. Ask if anyone can guess what size the Earth should be to go with this “Sun”. The guesses are very likely to be way off, because most “models” used in classrooms and the pictures in the textbooks are not at all to scale. In those, Earth is shown as a recognizable ball appearing as much as a tenth the size of the Sun.

Once you have a few guesses on record, share the key data. Write on the board or a flip chart as you go, to keep the presentation lively. (Nothing kills attention like a PowerPoint!) The Sun’s diameter is about 800,000 miles (1400 thousand km), and we’re using an 8-inch (18 cm) ball, so each inch stands for 100,000 miles (or, a cm stands for 75,000 km). The Earth’s diameter is only 8,000 miles (12,700 km). So how big will the model Earth be? It turns out we need something less than 1/10th of an inch across, only 0.08 inches (0.17 cm). So now you can pass around your “Earth”…a peppercorn will work, so will an allspice seed. (And, yes, you can get away with crumbling up a bit of paper and claiming it’s a spitwad you found.) If you have a spice-jar worth of seeds, everyone can have their own Earth to keep. Let the students take a moment to actually compare the sizes of Earth and Sun. It’s a dramatic difference, nothing like what their textbooks show.

Now it’s time to figure out where the Earth and Sun should be to fit in with this scale. Start by inviting students to guess…they will likely assume you can fit the Earth-Sun model easily inside the room. So now, add the distance data they need and we can “step” through the necessary calculation:

  • The Earth is roughly 93 million miles (150 million km) from the sun.
  • In our scale model, that’s 930 inches (2000 cm)
  • or 78 feet (20 m),
  • or 39 steps of about 2 feet (40 steps of 0.5 m)

Notes:

  • In our model we’re using a pace distance reasonably close to the average woman’s step length and not too far off the step length of a child who is supposed to be walking but can’t resist running. If your group is adult men or tall women, you can use the worksheet to adjust the number of steps accordingly.
  • Our scale in SI (Système international, or metric) is slightly different than in English units, so that those using the SI version can also use simple round figures.

At this point, try to keep a straight face while pretending to start building the model inside the classroom. Dramatically place the “Sun” at one end of the room and try to pace off 39 or 40 steps. Unless you’re doing this activity in a large lecture hall or a cafeteria, you will quickly run out of space (pun intended). By now, it should be clear to the students that this is to be an outdoor activity.

If the group is not too insanely anxious to get outdoors, you can take one more minute to assemble a part of the model which will fit in the room—the Earth-Moon system. Our Moon is nearly ¼ the diameter of Earth, so it’s actually an important body in its own right. And it’s close by. In our scale model, the Moon—which can be represented by a single nonpareil or cake “décor” candy—is 2 3/8” or 5 cm from Earth—so Earth & Moon can be stuck to a card or piece of paper. Keep in mind that if your group is too anxious to get outside, you can choose to save this step for your arrival at the Earth’s position in the model outside.

Earth and Moon are stuck together

Earth and Moon are stuck together

Set the very few ground rules for the mission plan. The model is built by counting steps—the students will be the ones to do the counting and you (the project leader) will expect them to try hard and in return will not be too fussy about precision or how the measurement accuracy may be affected when leadership shifts from short to tall students.   The group will remain cohesive, so no-one misses out on any important discoveries—and no one will charge ahead lest they get “lost in space”. And everyone should understand the time constraints.

When the group is large, I’ve had success assigning small subgroups to accompany one adult leader as the “vanguard” to each planet, leaving the rest behind until they have “landed,” then allowing the followers to run full-speed to catch up. If you do this, it’s important to ensure everyone has a turn to be in the vanguard at least once. If the students have been studying the planets, the vanguard students can also be asked to provide just a few key bits of information to the other explorers as features they have “discovered” about the planet they just reached. However, resist the urge to turn each stop into a seminar—the goal is to travel as far as possible across the system quickly enough to return before class time ends.

Remind the group that it’s a long walk across the solar system and then get started for real. Carry your Sun to a central location outside. If you can park Sol near a tall landmark (such as a flagpole), you’ll find it easier to point back to the “center of the Solar System” as you move further away. Take your Cheat Sheet in hand (the page from the resource kit listing your step-off distances) and read out the number of steps from the sun to Mercury. Send the Mercury explorer team ahead to place Mercury in its position, and quickly join them with the rest of the group. If the vanguard has some cool facts to share about Mercury, give them time to speak. And move on to Venus and the rest of the inner planets.

The asteroid belt portion is the first region containing many objects. If you pause at Ceres, the biggest dwarf planet in the inner Solar System, it helps reduce the stigma of Pluto being “only” a dwarf planet. The fun part in these “belt” regions is to pretend to dodge the small asteroids or other objects—while you may mention that there really isn’t any significant risk of running into an asteroid, that is no reason to turn down the chance to pretend you’re in a crowded mess of obstacles just like in the movies. Even Neil deGrasse Tyson, in his reboot of Cosmos, includes a sequence in which his Ship of the Imagination zigs and zags through, first, a crowded Asteroid Belt and later a densely-packed Oort Cloud.

If time is short or you are working with younger children, it is reasonable to make it to Jupiter (don’t forget to dodge the asteroids on the way out) point out roughly where the outer planets, Pluto, and the further objects would be found and then head back to Earth.

In any case, carry some ordinary first-aid supplies and be sure to have extra adults on hand to slow down those who want to jump to lightspeed. Don’t worry if you don’t have a straight route to use…twisting and turning your way around the streets of a neighborhood is equally impressive. If time will permit, participants can bring lunches and picnic in the Kuiper Belt before returning. And remember, as you return to collect the planet models, it is just as fun to rediscover the distances on the way back.

 

 

 

Walking to Pluto: Step 2

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Step 2: The List of Requirements:

Don’t worry.  This is one of the least expensive major science projects you’ll put together.

You’ll need:

Note that

I found a sunny yellow ball for my Sun.

1) Any ball roughly 8” (19mm) in diameter—a basic playground ball is likely to work, as will a standard soccer ball. FIFA size 5 works for the English-units model; the SI model is slightly smaller, so a youth-sized FIFA size 4 is appropriate—but don’t get bogged down in the details. Visually, when compared with the planet models, all of these ball sizes look the same.  It’s most likely that you already own or can borrow a ball for this project; if you simply must buy a ball, you should be able to find one for under $10.

 

 

2)  A set of eleven objects to represent each of the eight planets, our Moon, and two of the dwarf planets:

Mars or Venus

Mars or Venus

Pluto or Ceres

Pluto or Ceres

a)  four pins (two pin heads represent Mars and Venus, two pin points represent Ceres and Pluto),

The Moon Is Made Of Green Candy

The Moon Is Made Of Green Candy

b) one tiny candy nonpareil (cake décor or “sprinkle”) for the Moon

Earth Gets Spicy

Earth Gets Spicy

c) two peppercorns or allspice seeds for Earth and Venus

 

Having a Ball with Jupiter

Having a Ball with Jupiter

d) one jacks-size ball (Jupiter)

This jellybean could be Uranus or Neptune

This jellybean could be Uranus or Neptune

e) two jelly beans (or coffee beans) for Neptune and Uranus

 

Saturn represented by a large swirly peppermint

Saturn represented by a large swirly peppermint

f) and a ¾” (19mm) “shooter” marble or a big round piece of candy (also 3/4″ or 19mm) for Saturn.  (It’s just so nice to have something extra-cool and colorful for our most spectacular planet.)

 

 

Total cost: less than a dollar US; ideally, rummaging about an average home or allowing participants to bring contributions should turn up most of these objects for free. To splurge, pick up a whole jar of fresh peppercorns for around $5 and share them out among the students.

2) Eleven inexpensive holders for your objects, with the object names written on them. Empty clear yogurt containers or plastic drink cups work very well (see photos), as the pins can be pushed through the cups and others attached with glue to the cup bottoms…such that the cups then serve as mini-pedestals for the model objects. However, don’t feel bound by guidelines here—a set of index cards will do the job if that’s what you have handy. It does help to secure each object to its support. However, be sure that students can see the actual object clearly so that everyone has a feel for the scale. Cost: as much as 10 cents

3) A few signs printed on regular-sized paper to leave with objects that will be waiting for your return, such as:  “Please Leave This Experiment Undisturbed — (Teacher’s Name).”   Cost: 10 cents

4) Weights to keep each sign from blowing away in a breeze—anything from a handy rock to a water bottle to an actual sports-field marker from your supply closet.   Cost: negligible

5) Your basic first-aid kit and/or other equipment required by local protocols for a field trip.

6) Water as needed (Up to $10 if you need to buy each student some bottled water; negligible if students can bring refillable water bottles.) You may choose to make the walk as short as a half-mile (kilometer) or as long as twice that. For a short walk, you should only need modest supplies; for a long walk, snacks and water will be welcome.

7) A printout of your “Cheat Sheet” for either the English-units or SI-units version of the project Walk to Pluto, Miles or Walk to Pluto, km   (Just click to download the desired document) Whichever measurement system you’re using, it’s just one sheet, front & back, and includes short comments you can make as you take your trek. Cost: 15 cents, if your printer ink is expensive, because it does have colors.

Total cost of essential supplies: normally about a dollar, assuming most items can be gathered at home or borrowed.   For bottled water, if needed, budget an additional 50 cents per student

If you purchase all new supplies, you could spend as much as $40 for a brand-new soccer ball, a jar of nonpareils, a jar of peppercorns, a packet of pins, a jacks game, a bag of marbles with a shooter, and a package of jellybeans.

Interested in more details about the project calculations?  Here are copies of the complete worksheets:  Walk to Pluto Databank, miles and Walk to Pluto Databank, km

(For workbook copies in Excel format, ready for editing, I can send you a copy via Facebook messaging.  Just connect to one of my pages, Pixel Gravity or Cometary Tales.  Say, while you’re there, “like” the page.  Either way, you’ll receive the file in a return message.  The beauty of this approach is that you don’t even need a copy of Excel to use the workbook—Facebook will prompt you to choose whether to open it in Office Online or to download it.  The alternative is to email me via cometary@cometarytales.com.)

 

 

 

 

Walking to Pluto: Step 1

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Compare the sizes of Earth and Pluto & Charon Image Credit: NASA

Compare the sizes of Earth and Pluto & Charon (Pluto’s shadow isn’t that big on Earth!) Image Credit: NASA

It’s been a super-fantastic #PlutoFlyby day (see the video for a Pixel Gravity simulation of New Horizons’ close approach path on 7/15/2015), and I can’t resist going to one of my favorite astronomy projects:  building a scale model of the Solar System that takes you out of the house, out of the classroom, and under the sky.  (Where maybe Pluto’s shadow, cast by a distant star, will pass over you.)

As a reminder, you can look for the following in any Messy Monday project:

  1. A set of notes for project leaders, sketching the key elements of the project and the science topic it is meant to address
  2. A detailed supply list, structured to make it simple to purchase supplies for either a one-shot demonstration or for a classroom-sized group activity.
  3. A set of instructions for working through the project with students, including commentary to help cope with common classroom-management issues, questions that are likely to arise, and issues to keep in mind from safety to fairness.
  4. A rough estimate of the cost to run the project.

 

As before, I’ll break down the presentation into four postings, to spare readers trying to scroll through a 5000-word document, but I’ll post them quickly, so you can jump ahead if you are raring to go or want to access the reference materials first.  In other projects, we built our own comets. In this project, we travel out into the solar system, hoping to reach the source of that comet.

 

Step 1: Space is Big

It’s a long way to Pluto. But as far as the Universe is concerned, Pluto’s in our condo’s tiny back yard. What would it be like, though, to take a hike to Pluto? Like the New Horizons Spacecraft spacecraft buzzing past Pluto and its cluster of moons, but, well, maybe taking a bit less time about it. Nine years (the explorer was launched in early 2006) is longer than even the above-average student’s attention span. What if we could shrink the Solar System down to a reasonable size for nice walking field trip?

Paths of the nine planetary objects orbiting the Sun for many years.

Paths of the nine planetary objects orbiting the Sun for many years (A Pixel Gravity simulation result.)

No surprise here: it’s been done. Six ways to Sunday, in fact. While no one person claims to own the idea of building a scale model of the solar system, my favorite advocate of such models is Guy Ottewell, who likes a scaling factor that makes the model a reasonable size for the average person to walk. You can buy his book on the subject (now with cartons!) at the books page on his website. As a bonus, you’ll also find the most current editions of all of his other books on astronomy and much more.   (He self-effacingly describes his annual Astronomical Calendar as “widely used”; a more-accurate description would be “fanatically used by serious amateur astronomers”.)  No disclaimer necessary;  we’re not friends, I’m just one of his (many) Twitter followers.

The goal of this project is for everyone involved to obtain a personal sense of the feature of Outer Space that is hardest to conceptualize by reading books and trolling the internet: Space is BIG. (Yes, you may pause to reread the opening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.)  Indeed. Really Really Big.

Our neighbor galaxy, Andromeda (Image Credit:  ESA/Hubble)

Our neighbor galaxy, Andromeda (Image Credit: ESA/Hubble)

On top of that, the places you can stop—the non-empty bits—are few and very tiny compared with the distances between them.  And it takes a long time to get from one stop to another.

So, when assembling materials and presenting this project, keep these two key goals in mind. It’s not important whether you model Earth as a peppercorn (Ottewell’s model) or an allspice seed (easier to find in my own kitchen) or a spitwad from the ceiling that happens to be about a tenth of an inch across.   What’s important is that the Earth is not only extremely teensy compared to the Sun, but you can’t even fit the Sun and Earth into an ordinary classroom. And you have to hike at least a half a mile (a kilometer) if you want to make it to Pluto. With any luck, you can make practical use of the excess energy in a classroom-full of kids and also amaze them. If you’re doing this as a classroom helper and the teacher is used to taking advantage of the time to catch up on infinite paperwork, this is a time to persuade that teacher to shove the paperwork aside and join the expedition. There will be no regrets!

The objects used to represent planets and other bodies should be chosen for familiarity, because you want the participants to absorb the scale comparisons effortlessly. “Everyone knows” how big a jellybean is, a pin is familiar—both the pushing end and the painful poking end—a soccer ball is a known object, and so on. It doesn’t matter if the object you use is not exactly the design diameter—and no one is going to care that jellybeans or coffee beans are bumpy ovoids, not spheres. The next time you’re eating a jellybean (or slurping a Starbucks), at the back of your mind will be “I had to hike a half-mile just to get to this little Neptune here”.   Plus, “Yum, astronomy is delicious.”

If you’re interested in the underlying concepts, I encourage you to stop by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s website and read Guy Ottewell’s original 1989 description of his Thousand Yard Model; however, if you consider yourself a mathphobe, don’t let the arithmetical computations worry you. I’ve made you an Excel worksheet to do that task. Running a mind-expanding science project should help relieve that condition, not make it worse.

If you have visited a museum’s scale model, read Ottewell’s book, or done a similar project in the past, there are a few differences you may encounter in this project. In particular, I suggest you avoid having planets represented by peanuts. Including nuts in school projects, can be problematical if any student (or parent helper) with nut hyper-allergy could possibly be affected. (I have relatives with this allergy, and there is nothing quite like coping with anaphylactic shock to ruin a day’s outing.)

Dwarf Planet Ceres Image Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dwarf Planet Ceres Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

I’ve included a few more “destinations”—such as the ever-popular asteroid “belt” and my personal favorite of Pluto’s fellow dwarf planets. The number of steps taken between planets (and other destinations) is greater, because kids take shorter steps than grown-ups. (Also, other models I’ve seen assume a stride length more typical of men—and the majority of teachers and parent volunteers are still women, with shorter strides than men.) And I’ve included the current (for now, at least) locations for a few more distant “destinations” that we can look out towards from our turnaround point at Pluto.

The tables I’ve provided are in both English and SI units. The scales are slightly different between the two, in order to yield intuitively-scaled results in either set of units. And I’ve provided a “cheat sheet” of the key data for a teacher or other presenter to carry as a reference source on the walk. If anyone would like to get completely precise and build their own model matching their pace length exactly, or adjusting to a different scale, you can request a copy of my Excel workbook for this project to create your individualized pace-off. Or if you know a Senior Girl Scout or Boy Scout in need of a Gold Star or Eagle project, a community solar system model would be a very cool service project. (C’mon, Scouts, do you really want to build another park bench?)

Speaking of space, and coolness, and peanuts, and bigness, by the time your group finishes this project—everyone who participates should wholeheartedly agree:  Space is Big

A Sign From NASA

A Sign From NASA

 

 

 

BayCon 2014 Photo Gallery

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Here’s something new for this blog:  my photos have found a new home on Flickr.  Here’s the photo album for BayCon 2014.  You can preview them in this gallery;  if you pause your mouse over any image, you’ll see a brief descriptive title.  Click on any photo to jump to the full-sized images on Flickr.  Oh, and yes, they’re still copyrighted images, just nicer to look at in Flickr Land.


Lessons of a BayCon Gofer: There Is No Dog

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The final day of a convention can be a downer: games are ending, there are no parties pending, the con suite is running short on the good stuff, some people you just got to know are leaving early, and—not the least of it—you’re really, really tired.

The Signs Are On the Wall

The Signs Are Coming Off The Walls, Now

I wasn’t due for “work” until afternoon, but I roused myself earlier, for the last DIY project—Make A Parasol (see Firefly).   Alas, I’d missed a program schedule update & the project was over. Long over—it had happened the day before! Won’t happen this year—I’ve finally joined the Smartphone Universe & so have access to the online schedule for BayCon 2015.

 

There's Planets Around Them Thar Stars

There’s Planets Around Them Thar Stars

I did have a backup plan—a panel discussion on new discoveries about extrasolar planets. But I’m kind of a Kepler fanatic, so the information being shared was, well, old hat. I found myself nodding off while people were talking about one of my favorite subjects.

So off to the Gofer Hole to check in and claim my spot as the Art Show Gofer. The day wasn’t boring any more.

My Final Badge-Ribbon Collection, Nowhere Near Championship Length

My Final Badge-Ribbon Set, Actually a Relatively Small Collection

I had my chance to be part of the Art Auction. That was cool—I’ve never been, because I can’t afford to bid anything near what auction items should go for. Instead, I got to set up bidder numbers for folks who did have the resources and were eager to support these wonderful artists.

Once the Auction wound down, I got to be on the giving end of the Art Show. That is, folks queued up to collect the pieces they’d won in the silent bidding and—later on—the auction. The staff took care of the official tasks of collecting payments and pacifying people who’d not won the pieces they wanted. As a Gofer, I fetched their purchases (from the stacks we’d so carefully arranged the night before) and saw those their faces light up with happiness.

Eventually, all but a few of the neat stacks were gone. A few winning bidders were late to collect their prizes. But we set those safely aside.

In the meantime, all afternoon, artists were coming by and packing up any pieces that hadn’t sold. We helped if needed—fetching supplies, finding paperwork they needed, taking down labels and hooks from the display boards—and it was cool to get to talk directly with the artists. Several artists had entrusted the convention staff to display the work on their behalf, having shipped the art with their registration forms. Most had a piece or two still unsold, and these needed to be repacked for shipping homeward. The original boxes were not necessarily available, so I made the rounds of the vendor room to scrounge empty boxes.

Gradually, one by one, the display boards were emptied, we collected all the hooks, labels, and trash, and the staff tracked down the last of the tardy winning bidders.

It was time to empty the room. Load-out time. Most of the stuff needing shifted was heavy—pegboards, frames, bins full of papers and supplies. So I called dibs on the job of getting all the art-to-be-shipped-home safely out to the Art Show director’s car. It took a few trips through a lobby full of exhausted attendees and staffers. Then I glommed onto an empty luggage cart. Plus, the Gofer King was one of the staffers in the lobby and he dispatched an idle Gofer to help on my last round. Whew.

So, most of these events end with what they call Dead Dog.   That’s one of the things you hear staffers talking about near the end of a convention, but they don’t share with mere members what exactly that is. The deep dark secret is: it’s a party. It’s the staff party that happens when everything’s over, the attendees have gone, and all the clean-up work that can get done is done. Aha, it’s what theater types call a strike party.

Kris & Alison, Art Show Maestrae

Kris & Alison, Art Show Maestrae, at Dead Dog

Generally speaking, it’s a Staff event, but Gofers who stick it out all the way to the end are welcomed into the party. There’s food. All the leftovers from the weekend, that no-one wants to have to haul home. All the ice-cold sodas left in the Magic Charity Soda Machine. Meanwhile, the hard-core staffers take the opportunity to give thank-you speeches to each other and praise the folks who’ve stepped up to chair the event next year.

It felt a little like crashing the party at that point, but the Art Show leaders were saying nice things to me, so I felt better. And Alison asked if maybe I’d help her as staff in 2015.  And finally, finally, I gathered up my own art purchases, and Went Home.

 

Art Show Victory!

2015 Art Show Staff!

Gofer Lesson of the Day:  If you stick it out to the end of everything, you can get into the fabulous Dead Dog party.  There will probably not be any dogs there, just tired-out volunteers.  Like you.

How to do this:

Method #1:  Walk into the Gofer Hole and sign up.  You do need to be 16, but there’s no upper limit.  Yes, really, you, too, can be a middle-aged Gofer.  For BayCon 2015, the secret lair is in Tasman.  Go up the escalator, turn right and it’ll be on your right before you reach the convention center.

Method #2:  Email the King of the Gofers.  That’s gofers15@baycon.org.  You get double credit for helping at setup on the day before the convention starts. If you’re super-eager to help & don’t get a reply, email me (cometary@cometarytales.com) and I’ll help you make contact.

Lessons of a BayCon Gofer: Ribbons & Tags

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Sunday was the last full day of BayCon 2014, and it was full indeed. (BayCon 2015‘s will be even more crammed, with no Monday to work with.)

At this particular con, if you put in a certain number of Gofering hours, you’re awarded free membership for the following year. It hadn’t been my original goal, but when I checked in Sunday noonish after Quidditch,

The Quidditch Field

The Quidditch Field, Courtesy of the Silicon Valley Skyfighters

I could see my stats were high enough that the free-membership category was within reach. But it would take some decent planning now, as there were a few Important Items for myself on the program for Sunday.  And not so many demands for Gofers.

But then, late in the afternoon, there was a call for help on badge checking. This is the extremely arduous task of sitting in a folding chair at the entry to the Convention Center hall leading to the art show, vendors, and the big room for boffers & sword-fighting & large-audience programs, and making sure all the people going by have BayCon badges. No worries. These are not teensy “Hello” stickers. It’s not often you have to actually make someone stop so you can see their badge. They’re big enough, color-coded, with an easily-recognized logo-du-con. But wait—there’s more— most folks have badges that you would be hard-pressed to miss. Eh, what? Well, here’s my badge after Friday.

One Day's Worth of Badge Ribbons

One Day’s Worth of Badge Ribbons

And there’s my badge at the end of Saturday.

Two Days Worth of Badge Ribbons

Two Days’ Worth of Badge Ribbons

 

And did I hear “Sunday”?

Three Days Worth of Badge Ribbons

Three Days’ Worth of Badge Ribbons

Yep, it’s the ribbon thing. Collecting badge ribbons is a project of pride for many convention denizens, so even if you have to stop someone to check their badge, you can sideline a prickly reaction with an appeal to check out their ribbons. Or an offer to share one of your own ribbons. You do have ribbons, don’t you? Find me at BayCon 2015 & you can have one of mine. They’re rainbow, and purple, and shiny.

Another bonus to the badge checking job, at least at the convention center hallway spot, is that it’s a super-fine spot to view cosplayers on the move. I had a partner on the job, so I was also able to talk to a few cosplayers and ask for photos. A few were even up for a ribbon swap as well.   My own costuming skills go no further than fun & funky outfits for Halloween, so I’m a huge fan of the skilled costume artists who turn out for these conventions. Here are just a few of the folks I met while badge-checking. (Reminder, ask permission for photos!)

Thank you for your service, Redshirt

Thank you for your service, Redshirt, but where’s your BayCon Badge?

 

Star Trek Steampunk

Star Trek Steampunk

 

 

Madame Vastra

Madame Vastra

 

 

 

 

 

Cool, huh?

At the next shift change, I swapped with a Gofer who was working the Art Show.  And that’s when I became a Dedicated Gofer.  Sounds impressive, but it’s an unofficial label indicating that a department head wanted dibs on my time.  Think of it as a mezzanine-level status just below Staff Member.

How does such a thing happen? Five easy steps:

A. Begin with a gap in programs & activities that the Gofer is interested in over a several-hour period.  Check. (I arrived late afternoon with a snack in my bag and nothing on my wish-list but a determination to get to Regency Dancing around 9pm. I made it there at 9:20.)

Star Wars! (Carrender Robotics)

Star Wars at the Art Show! (Carrender Robotics)

B. Stir in an attraction within the venue that the Gofer is interested in. Check. (Bidding was due to close & I had a bid on one item and a friend with a wish for someone to “guard” her bid on another.)

Disco LEGO (Zonker Harris)

Disco LEGO (Zonker Harris)

C. Add a liberal quantity of responsibility for real stuff.  Check. (A key job was organizing the sold works into neat collections, by bidder number, ready for pick-up on Monday.  The staff gave us Gofers instructions, but pretty much let us take care of the job.)

LEGO Collection at the Art Show (Carrender Robotics, Zonker Harris)

LEGO Collection at the Art Show (Carrender Robotics, Zonker Harris)

D. Allow the gofer to see that dedication is actually helping out somebody.  Check. (My fellow Gofer left for dinner shortly after the 7pm closing time and never returned;  I bought a soda & enjoyed a granola bar in between jobs. But the staffers were so on task they were ignoring food they’d brought and having to nag each other to take restroom breaks.  There was clearly too much work for the main staffers to do on their own & they were struggling with a computer issue as well.  By the time my partner Gofer went off-shift, the staff members were trusting me to just take care of other ancillary jobs like running through checklists and sorting out unsold items and items going to the auction.)

 

LEGO at the Art Show (Bricks By the Bay)

LEGO at the Art Show (Bricks By the Bay)

 

E.  Tell ’em.  Check.  (As I was leaving to get my fix of Regency Dancing, the Art Show director directly thanked me for helping and staying late and told me she’d request my help the next day.)

Regency Dancers Take the Floor

Regency Dancers Take the Floor

 

Gofer Lesson of the Day:  Find yourself a good spot to collect ribbons–having some to trade makes it easier–and if you are nice to the folks who put in the effort to turn up in those excellent costumes you may get to take photos or even selfies with them!

Bonus Lesson, this one for Staffers Who Rely on Gofers:  Give your Gofers real jobs, let them take ownership of tasks, and remember to tell them you appreciate their help.  And that will keep them coming back for more.

Lessons of a BayCon Gofer: You Do What You Con

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A Sign From NASA

It’s a Sign From NASA

As of BayCon 2014, Saturday’s big event is the Variety Show (the event formerly known as Masquerade), so the halls of the Hyatt are full of costumed characters. My husband’s coming tonight, just for the Show. In the meantime, I need to cram in some of my own Con activities, beginning with a kaffeeklatsch (small-group discussion) with the artist guest of honor, Ursula Vernon. Then there’s that one panel discussion (I’m not generally keen on panels, but Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff  is on this one). And I have my eye on a session about cool Arduino projects, not to mention showing up for a presentation by some friends and acquaintances from the Bay Area Lego User Group.

Does this mean I’m not Gofering at all? Nope. Gofering is a flexible commitment. I can sign in just for the time block I expect to be free. And the Art Show happens to need an extra hand just then.

The Art Show is one of my favorite venues, always with something new to see. Plus this particular day began with that awesome-artist kaffeeklatsch. The only downside? No photography, for obvious reasons. It’s light work, helping things get organized. Sorting collections of paper, helping the Art Show leaders check that all the forms are there and all the pieces have their bid sheets and all the pieces on display are included in their records.   There’s an old computer that needs someone to keep trying to get it to boot up. And finally, I’m entrusted with the queue of members needing to be assigned their bidder numbers and to be reminded of how the bid process works. My qualifications? Being an experienced art-show bidder, and relatively fussy with paperwork.

By the time the queue was down to the occasional new arrival and my services weren’t needed, it was time for the afternoon programs I wanted to attend.

More Fun With Arduino

More Fun With Arduino

And then I had the whole evening free to spend with my husband, who used his one-day pass for the variety show,

Vader & Son with Garcia

Vader & Son with Garcia

a tour, some pictures of paparazzi,

Dot Matrix & Her Fans

Dot Matrix & Her Fans

 

 

 

 

 

 

and an introduction to boffers, where a pair of energetic youngsters thoroughly trounced us both. He drew the line at staying for the midnight reading of Eye of Argon. Being a simply horrid spouse, I sent him home alone and dropped in on a few parties after that quiet, sedate, restful hour of reading, to whit:

En Garde!

The Eye of Argon appears at midnight

 

Gofer Lesson of the Day:  Let yourself enjoy the convention, too.

 

Lessons of a BayCon Gofer: Jill of All Trades

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In 2014, BayCon had its traditional four days to work with, and Friday was an ease-into-the event day. This was a great time to turn up at the Gofer Hole and ask if they needed help. “Yes!” being the inevitable answer. Warning: if you try this, there ARE forms! If you are a kid, there are parental signatures required. So I signed away liability for the horrific injuries and possible death that might occur as a result of my participation in the duties of a fetch-and-carry helper in a nice hotel constructed to meet modern building codes. More likely: infection by a zombie virus, but ha on them, they didn’t mention zombie viruses in the release form.

The reward for filling out forms: my first badge ribbon of the Con. Yes, this means I am Gofer #18. Shades of Caddy Shack.

Meet Gofer #18

Meet Gofer #18

So what does a Gofer do? Take a deep breath, plunge in. Oh, it is soooooo difficult.

Job #1: Go to the Big Ballroom, to help set up for some event tonight. No idea what the event is. The person who called for help? He’s not there. No one knows what he wanted done. But the guy hanging lights at the Art Show needs an assistant.

Job #2: Help hang lights at the Art Show. Now, actually hanging the lights is a Skilled Job, not a Gofer job. My job is to hand cable ties to the exhausted electrical tech, whose ladder-climbs for the weekend have already gone into the triple digits.   And to help spot weak links in the chain of power-strips and extension cords feeding electrons to the downlamps positioned to light the display boards for the art. Artists are already checking in, placing their work, jockeying for prime display spots in the venue. Still, we proceed up and down rows with a stepladder and a bundle of cable ties.

Job #3: The original person who wanted help is back. He needs a banner snapped onto a big framework thingy. It’s a multi-gofer job that takes some cooperation, especially amusing as none of us assisting with this thing have any idea what it’s for. My engineering brain helps with figuring out the layout itself, and we get the fabric stretched out nicely, but my partner gets to actually do most of the actual attachment, since there is a power element to the task.

Job #4: Hang around in the Gofer Hole, being On Call. Seriously, being available counts as working. Yes, indeed, this is even better than counting billable hours in my consulting practice. Dang, if only I could bill clients for time I’m home & my phone and email connections are working.   There are snacks here—bagels, mmmm. And electrical outlets, so I can plug in my netbook & work on a Messy Monday project.

Job #5: Schlep groceries for a party. Some longtime VIP staffers are having a private party. Their goodies for the party are stowed in the Gofer Hole. We On-Call Gofers have the hugely easy job of carrying the goodies a hundred feet down the hall. [Hint:  helping with a party does entitle one to partake of the party.  Generally speaking.  I did not take part, having a prior engagement with a soda machine.]

Job #6: Load sodas into the Charity Soda Machine. This is a magical device in the Games Room that converts geeks’ need for carbonated sugar- or aspartame-water into monies for this year’s charity fundraising. I was briefly concerned that I would run into difficulties with my limited weight-lifting capabilities. But the job soon devolves into a three-stage process free of excessive lifting:

Stage A: Wander about looking for the Keeper of the Soda-Machine Keys.

Stage B: Wait for the Individual Authorized to Use the Humungous Hand Truck

Stage C: Leave when Keeper of the Machine appears and disavows any need for help

Job #7: Build a LARP set. Someone has created a live-action role-playing version of a card-based game called “Kill Dr. Lucky”. This is a game I have never heard of, but someone has gone to great lengths to build an accurate, room-sized playing field that live humans can walk about on as if they are playing pieces in the game. Our mission: assist this charismatic lunatic by moving chairs out of the way, laying out the sheets his friend has carefully marked out with lines and labels, getting each in proper orientation to the other and smoothing out the boundaries with tape. By the time we are done, I’m determined to show up and try out this LARPing thing.    P1210948 The LARP Field2

And by this time, I’ve put in totally enough time as a Gofer for one day, while the activities I’m least interested in on the program are conveniently over.

My Very Own Ray Gun

My Very Own Ray Gun

I have time to dash up to the DIY room before dinnertime and make myself a cool ray gun by artistically decorating a plastic gun with gold and silver and red and purple and green Sharpies.   It is my favorite toy already. So shiny.

And I wouldn’t want anyone to think one has to devote the entire day just Gofering about. I did skip an hour of possible On-Call credit for a panel on the relative merits of James Bond and Doctor Who. And regretted it. There is no contest. Doctor Who is way, way cooler than James Bond, but the panel was mostly a bunch of guys keen on car chases in movies.

Finally, yes, I did get to play Kill Dr. Lucky. It was super fun, and while I cannot claim to be the One Who Did the Deed, the evil Dr. L was indeed assassinated. Here is our team’s creative enactment of the impending demise of the successful assassin.

Let's Get Doctor Lucky's Killer

Let’s Get Doctor Lucky’s Killer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gofer Lesson of the Day: Sign up early & there will be lots of easy jobs to do while the con is barely getting started.  There’s never a dull moment, or if there is, you can get credit for working by napping while On Call.  And don’t leave home without a suitable weapon.

Have Ray Gun, Will Shoot

Have Ray Gun, Will LARP

 

 

 

Lessons Learned as a BayCon Gofer: Seeking the Secret Hideout

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BayCon 2015  looms on the horizon.   The increasing pace of email updates from the registration staff is bringing on flashbacks of the olden days, at BayCon 2014, when I fell deep into a gopher hole and didn’t emerge until the sun was fading on Memorial Day.

That is, last year I was a Gopher/Gofer/Go-fer at my local science-fiction convention. (Spelling must remain inconsistent & unimportant in this instance.) This year, I’m On Staff. It’s remotely possible that the two conditions are related, what the docs call “comorbid conditions”. Perhaps it’s worth revisiting, to give folks a glimpse into the life of a convention Gofer. Or to enable recognition of incipient volunteerism.

It all started on check-in day, the Thursday evening before Opening Day.

ED-209 from Robocop

ED-209 from RoboCop looms menacingly.

Inauspiciously, my badge was not waiting at the check-in table; something had gone wrong with the printing, and it was queued up with several other reprint orders. That meant I had nothing to do for a half-hour or so. Rather than sit patiently, I roamed the halls. The week before, I’d emailed a randomly-named staff address to ask about working as a go-fer, and the reply was fuzzy, but boiled down to stop-in-at-the-gopher-hole.   But where was this secret base?

Welcome to Baycon

Welcome to Baycon, Sponsored by Adipose Industries

Suffice to say, I failed to locate the base, but the search renewed my acquaintance with the layout of the Hyatt Regency & Santa Clara Convention Center. So I collected my program and newly reprinted badge

The Baycon 2014 Member Badge

Proof Of Membership

& went home to rest up for the long weekend.

 

 

Paradoxically, my unfulfilled search actually made me more determined to find the secret lair and get involved…once things were up and running on Friday. The secret? The Gofer Hole owns one of the smaller meeting rooms in a relatively quiet zone (across the hall from the Bayshore Room at the Hyatt) but during the Con, it’s clearly flagged with artistic signage and new Gofers are welcome to stop in and sign up.

HAHAHAHA Got Badge!

HAHAHAHA Got Badge!

Amazingly, Friday morning, they would even let this demented individual sign up:

 

 

 

Gofer Lesson of the Day: Don’t give up, take advantage of “wasted” time to learn something or, heck, catch some z’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2012-2015 Vanessa MacLaren-Wray All Rights Reserved