From the sun to Mercury, the first planet, you have to walk (or cycle, as I did) 58 meters, representing 58 million kilometers at a scale of 1:1,000,000,000.
At this scale Mercury is only about the size of a small pea. On the photo you can see it on the left, as a small bump on the upright rod that represents its axis.
The text panel (in German only, sorry) points out that there is an extreme difference in temperature between the side of Mercury that faces the sun (+400 degrees Centigrade) and the side facing away.
Being so close to the sun, Mercury is difficult to observe, but it can sometimes be seen through the telescopes of the Weikersheim Observatory as a small disk near the horizon.
Up near the top of the Karlsberg (Charlie's Hill) is the Weikersheim Observatory, which is run by over a hundred amateur astronomers who are members of the Weikersheim Astronomical Society.
At least once a month (weather permitting) the society conducts observation evenings which are open to the public free of charge.
Since 2007 the observatory has also been the site of the planet Saturn on the Weikersheim Planetary Trail. Before then Saturn was located a few dozen meters further up the hill, but in 2007 they decided to fudge the distances just slightly to bring Saturn down to the observatory.
As you can see in the third photo, the model of Saturn includes the rings circling its equator. Saturn's axis has a quite noticeable tilt of 26.7 degrees.
1. Coming up the hill to the Observatory
2. Side view of the Observatory and Saturn
3. Saturn model and text panel at the Observatory
The Weikersheim Planetary Trail begins on the Tauber Valley Cycling Route at the northern edge of the city of Weikersheim. A yellow sphere, about one and a half meters in diameter, represents the sun at a scale of 1:1,000,000,000.
From there you start walking or cycling slightly uphill towards the Karlsberg (Charlie's Hill) and Queckbronn.
The amazing thing, if you haven't thought about it for a while, is that the sun and the planets are so small in comparison to the huge distances between them. Walking or cycling the Planetary Trail is a good way to get a feeling for the true proportions of our solar system -- highly recommended!
The text panels are attractive, up-to-date (as of 2007) and highly informative. They are in German only, but if you don't understand that language you can still appreciate the photos and understand some of the statistics.
1. Yellow sphere representing the sun
2. Text panel about the Weikersheim Planetary Trail
3. Text panel about the sun
Venus is similar to the Earth in some ways -- mass, diameter and orbital duration -- but with an atmosphere consisting of 96 % carbon dioxide Venus is a terrifying example of what can happen to a planet with a runaway greenhouse effect. Huge clouds of sulfuric acid surround the planet, sending down acid rain which evaporates before it hits the hot surface -- hotter even than the daytime side of Mercury, which is much closer to the sun.
The text panel goes on to explain that Venus is often visible as the "Morning or Evening Star" in the form of a large bright disk which shows phases like the moon (half moon, full moon, etc.)
1. Venus model and text panel
2. Looking back at the sun from Venus
You have to walk or cycle another 42 meters to get from Venus to the Earth, the "largest and most massive stony planet, and the only one with detectable life on it."
The text panel points out that the Earth is probably also the most geologically active planet in the Solar System, with continental plates moving around and constantly forming new mountain ranges and ocean basins, also with hot magma forcing its way up from the interior and spewing out in the form of volcanoes.
In the first photo you can see that the Earth's axis is tilted more than Venus's and much more than Mercury's -- and that the Earth is blue, like the flowers blooming behind the model.
If you enlarge the second photo you can see some people on bicycles riding past the sun on the Tauber Valley Cycling Route.
1. Earth -- Planet of Life (click to enlarge)
2. Sun and cyclists seen from Earth
The distance from the Earth to Mars, the next planet, is 78 meters on the Planetary Trail, corresponding to 78 million kilometers in the real Solar System.
From the model you can see that Mars is represented by a small red ball, about the size of a marble, even smaller than the blue ball back at Earth.
Like Earth, Mars has a tilted axis of rotation, which means it has different seasons in its northern and southern hemispheres. The models on the Planetary Trail were carefully made to show the tilt (or not) of each planet's axis. (Wait till you see the one at Uranus!)
After Mars, the distances start getting longer. You have to walk or cycle 551 meters to get to the next planet, Jupiter, by way of the Asteroid Belt.
1. My bicycle at Mars
2. Mars model and text panel
There isn't any model at the Asteroid Belt, but there is a text panel which explains that between Mars and Jupiter there are numerous small and larger rocky boulders circling the sun.
The largest of these, Ceres, was the first to be discovered (in 1801) and was first thought to be a star but was soon afterwards identified as an object orbiting the sun within our solar system.
In 2006 the International Astronomical Union decided to classify Ceres as a "dwarf planet" along with Pluto (discovered in 1930) and Eris (discovered in 2005).
Looking out across the corn fields from the Asteroid Belt you can see Weikersheim, a small city with 7,512 inhabitants.
In the center of the second photo you can see Weikersheim Castle, where open-air opera performances are held every second summer, in the odd numbered years.
1. Looking back at Weikersheim from the Asteroid Belt
2. Weikersheim Castle from the Asteroid Belt
Jupiter in the model is about the size of a baseball, which doesn't seem terribly gigantic unless you recall the tiny spheres that represented Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars further down the hill.
The text panel points out that Jupiter, the largest and most massive planet in our solar system, consists mainly of hydrogen and helium. It has a strong magnetic field. In the atmosphere there are large storms that can be seen even with small telescopes. The largest of these storms is The Great Red Spot, a huge storm which has been raging for over three hundred years.
645 meters further on, up the hill, is the next planet, Saturn.
1. Jupiter model and text panel (click to enlarge)
2. Looking down at Weikersheim from Jupiter
At the top of the Karlsberg, between Saturn and Uranus so to speak, is a walled-in forest area called the Nature and Free Time Park Karlsberg.
This park is home to what the Germans somewhat poetically call "Hochwild", meaning tall wild animals, known more prosaically to us English speaking people as deer.
Since I was there at high noon on a warm summer day I didn't see any animals of any sort, wild or otherwise, but I'm sure they must be in there somewhere.
1. Entrance to the Nature Park Karlsberg
2. In the Nature Park
3. Sign at the entrance
As you can see from the model, the rotational axis of Uranus is so tilted that it is nearly horizontal (97.9 degrees of tilt), so the planet is practically lying down as it orbits the sun.
The stone wall behind the Uranus model is the wall that surrounds the Nature Park Karlsberg (previous tip).
In the outer reaches of the solar system, the planets are further apart than they are in our neighborhood. So after leaving Uranus you have to walk or cycle 1,623 meters before reaching the next and last planet, Neptune.
1. Uranus and its horizontal axis
2. My bicycle at Uranus
Local historians estimate that Queckbronn is around a thousand years old, though the first mention of the village in a written document was not until the year 1261.
Like Weikersheim (but unlike nearby Tauberrettersheim, for example) Queckbronn is a predominantly Protestant village, and has been ever since Duke Wolfgang I of Hohenlohe–Weikersheim decreed its conversion in the sixteenth century.
This was a result of the Peace of Augsburg that was negotiated in 1555 to put an end to religious strife within the loosely-knit "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation". Under this agreement, all the princes and dukes and other local rulers agreed not to make war against each other for religious reasons. In the countryside, the common people were required to accept the religion of their local ruler, but in the cities both Catholics and Protestants were allowed to have churches and practice their own religion.
This agreement did in fact keep the peace, more or less, for over sixty years, until the pent-up antagonisms exploded in the unimaginable destruction of the Thirty Years War (1618-1638), which resulted in the death of eight million people in Germany -- two thirds of the population!
More recently, Queckbronn was badly damaged by shelling at the end of the Second World War in 1945, so that many of the farmhouses had to be completely rebuilt after the war was over.
1. First glimpse of Queckbronn
2. Entrance to Queckbronn
Between Uranus and Neptune there are several recently-installed windmills for generating electricity.
Germany was the world's leading user of wind power for a number of years, before being overtaken by the United States in 2008 -- though the Germans are fond of pointing out that a lot of the new windmills in the United States were in fact installed by German companies.
Some conservative Germans object to these new windmills on aesthetic grounds, saying they mar the landscape, though these same people have never objected to the much more numerous metal towers for high-voltage transmission lines.
Click on the link below to see an aerial photograph of part of the Queckbronn wind farm. (They only show two windmills. I saw at least six.)
1. Windmills at Queckbronn
2. Six more windmills near Queckbronn
From the text panel we learn that the existence of the planet Neptune was predicted by two astronomers in 1845 and was actually sighted through a telescope in Berlin in 1846.
The prediction was based on irregularities in the orbit of Uranus, which suggested that there must be another large planet out there somewhere.
In the model Neptune is represented by a blue ball on a somewhat tilted orbit (29.6 degrees of tilt). The model is now located directly in the ex-village of Queckbronn.
Except for being the site of Neptune on the Planetary Trail, Queckbronn looks very much like any other German village, with a nice fountain, flowers and well-tended farm houses.
My impression is that Queckbronn is not as affluent as some of the other villages in the vicinity, like Tauberrettersheim or Schäftersheim, but it is nonetheless a pleasant and fairly prosperous place.
Several families in Queckbronn have rooms to rent for vacationers, at very reasonable prices.
From Queckbronn it is possible to continue along the Planetary Trail and return to Weikersheim by a different route, with a stop at a new station representing the ex-planet Pluto, but I didn't have time for that because I had been invited for lunch back in Weikersheim, so I returned the fast way via the regional highway L-1003. This was downhill all the way, and got me back to Weikersheim on my bicycle in a matter of minutes.
>>Back to the Sun at the beginning of the Planetary Trail
>>Back to my Queckbronn Intro Page