Picture the solar system. I’m guessing the image in your head is similar to what you might see in an astronomy text with colorful spheres of different sizes set on a series of nested circles orbiting a large yellow sun. And it all fits neatly on a single page. Or maybe two pages.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The proportions and distances are completely wrong, but necessarily so. If we shrank the orbits of all eight planets down to scale and fit them on a fold-out page in a coffee table book or large computer monitor, the planets themselves would be microscopic, invisible to the eye, making the diagram useless. So we cheat by blowing the planets up.
After seeing these illustrations all our lives, we forget how truly tiny the planets are in relation to the space that separates them. The solar system is made of mostly empty space with bits of matter — planets, comets, asteroids and one sun — to liven up the vacuum.
Enter filmmaker Wylie Overstreet and director Alex Gorosh. Like you and I, they never found an image that represented the real scale of the solar system, so they decided to create one themselves. Not in a photo (too much paper!), but a scale model using a spacious dry lake bed in the Nevada desert.
They based their model on an Earth the size of a marble and scaled from there. Even with Earth shrunk down to less than 1/2-inch, they still required 7 miles (11.3 km) of space to include all the planets through Neptune.
In the span of 36 hours they platted out a mesmerizing and visceral true scale model solar system, even attaching lights to their car to drive and film the orbits of the planets at night. The video is a delight to watch. You may find yourself touched as I was by scope and scale of it all, the wonder of our tiny existence. Nice work, guys.
To Scale: The Solar System
The HD Vimeo above occasionally has buffering issues. If you run into a slowdown, here’s the Youtube version:
While theirs might be the most effective at communicating size and distance, you might be interested in some earlier efforts, including a humorous take by Bill Nye the Science Guy (below) and the Sweden Solar System, the largest scale model on Earth which goes beyond Neptune well into the Kuiper Belt. Wishing you a mind-expanding day!
Bill Nye Demonstrates Distance Between Planets