Build your own scale model of the Solar System: But first a thought exercise!
NOTE: Below I have added websites to calculate sizes and distances if you want to attempt your own scale model. I have also added websites showing the current position of the planets as well as a few great solar system to scale videos.
I don’t think anyone reading this needs to be educated as to the fact that the solar system is a vast expanse, and like electrons around their nucleus, it’s almost completely empty and devoid of matter aside from the sun and the plane of debris that it wasn’t able to pull into itself at the creation of the solar system. That debris I speak of, of course is us, the other planets and solar system objects. Many think of the Earth and planets, especially the Jovian planets as huge places and to be fair they truly are relative to a human being. The Sun however, doesn’t even realize that we are here. Making up 99.5 percent of the mass of the solar system, anything but the Sun is a mere grain of sand kicked off a giant’s shoes. 99.99999958% of the Sun energy is lost into space. The tiny fraction that keeps it from being 100% is us, all of us; all of the objects in the solar system. That’s all of the Sun’s energy that the entire mass of the solar system (Sun excluded) collects. I find that fact on its own, staggering.
Below are the two best solar system calculators that I know of as well as a couple great videos. They are the top two links and they work on both metric and imperial units of measurement. Start by giving the sun a size value (Say 10” inches) and it will then calculate how large and how far away the other planets should be to scale. The distances not just in space but in our own solar system will soon become incredibly obvious to you, even eye opening. Give it a shot! If you make the Sun 10” inches and you are in a baseball field at home plate Mars will be just beyond second base and you won’t even be able to get to Jupiter so scale appropriately.
Once you have your model set up here’s a great thought exercise to have people take part in. Due to the sheer distances involved in a scale solar system model, the models themselves are typically set up with all of the planets as close as they can possibly be to one another, aligned in a straight line or to say it another way; If you were on the Sun all of the planets would be in one straight line going away from you. That being said, take whoever is with you to a trip to Jupiter for example. Look at how far away the Sun is from where you are standing. Look at how small the planet Jupiter is in relation to the vast expanse of the solar system. Take a moment to realize that Jupiter is on average 5.2 AU (778 million km. or 484 million mi.) from the sun and attempt to imagine those distances as you are looking out over your model. Think about the time it takes to travel from Earth to Jupiter. Galileo took 6 years, Cassini flew past in about 4 years, Juno reached the gas giant in about 4 years as well. Really ponder that for a moment. Now look in the other direction, further still out to your Jovian neighbor, Saturn. Saturn at 9.6 AU from the Sun is almost as far away from you at Jupiter as the Sun is!
Now, here’s the real thought exercise. The fact is, that the planets are never all as close to one another as possible (aka: in a straight line leading away from the Sun). Remember how tiny and far away Saturn was from you while you were on Jupiter? Well when Saturn just hits superior conjunction it’s not right next to you, it’s on the other side of the Sun in relative you. Throw Pluto out there as well but leave Uranus and Neptune in line with you where they were. Size and distance just got real didn’t they?! You are now imagining Saturn; that little marble on the other side of your Sun is now a mind blowing 14.8 AU (1.376 billion mi.) from you.
Thankfully you still have Jovian neighbor’s right? After all the good old ice giants of Uranus and Neptune are still here next to you on the same side of the Sun. The problem here is that Uranus isn’t feeling very social and Neptune, at 30 AU from the Sun is about 25 AU from where you are at Jupiter. That’s about 10 AU (929 million mi. or 1.5 billion km.) further from you than Saturn is and Neptune is still on the same side of the Sun as you! It’s simply amazing that they discovered it by its miniscule gravitational interaction with its neighbors.
I realize this mind exercise is really warming you up for a full day of pondering but let’s close this thing out before we walk away. We placed Pluto at superior conjunction from our location at Jupiter didn’t we? When Pluto and Jupiter are on opposite sides of the Sun, Pluto at a distance of about 40 AU from the Sun is now 45.2 AU (4.2 billion mi. or 6.7 billion km.) away from your vantage point at Jupiter. These distances are truly remarkable and the tiny sizes of the planets relative to those distances really gripped my mind at a young age and hasn’t let go since.
That’s enough thought exercise for now but keep in mind we just traveled out to Pluto which is a span covered by sunlight in just 5 hours roughly. Never mind the 4.2 year voyage that light takes just to get out to the next star with its possible orbiting grains of sand.
Create a scale model of the Solar System: http://www.exploratorium.edu/ronh/solar_system/
Create a scale model of the Solar System: http://thinkzone.wlonk.com/SS/SolarSystemModel.php
NASA Solar System Simulator: http://space.jpl.nasa.gov/
NASA Eyes on the Solar System: http://eyes.nasa.gov/download.html
The Planets Today: http://www.theplanetstoday.com/
The Sky Live: Current Planet Positions: https://theskylive.com/3dsolarsystem
Chris Peat’s “Heavens-Above” Current Planet Positions: http://www.heavens-above.com/planets.aspx?lat=0&lng=0&loc=Unspecified&alt=0&tz=UCT
Solar System Scope: http://www.solarsystemscope.com/
Scale of the Solar System: http://www.scalesolarsystem.66ghz.com/#venus
Scale of the Solar System: http://www.phrenopolis.com/perspective/solarsystem/
How much sunlight is intercepted by planets?: http://server-sky.com/SunlightPlanets
To Scale: The Solar System:
How Big is the Solar System:
The Solar System to Scale:
Leaving the Solar System at the Speed of Light: