Filmmakers Create Epic Scale Model Of The Solar System

Aerial view of a true scale model of the solar system built in the Nevada desert. See below for more details and a fantastic video on its creation. Credit and copyright:
Aerial view of a true scale model of the solar system built in the Nevada desert by Alex Gorosh, Wylie Overstreet and friends. See below for details and a fantastic video on its creation. Credit and copyright: Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh

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.

Is this how you picture the solar system? You're not alone. Credit: NASA/JPL
Is this how you picture the solar system? You’re not alone. Credit: NASA/JPL

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.

Overstreet's and Gorosh's model starts with a marble-sized Earth. Using it as a standard, they created an accurate scaled model of the solar system in the Nevada desert. At this scale, the sun is 5 feet (1.5 meters) in diameter. Credit and copyright: Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh
Overstreet’s and Gorosh’s model starts with a marble-sized Earth. Using it as a standard, they created an accurate scaled model of the solar system in the Nevada desert. At this scale, the sun is 5 feet (1.5 meters) in diameter. Credit and copyright: Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh

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:

 

Wylie Overstreet prepares adjusts an illuminated scale model of Saturn on its post. Still frame from video. Copyright and credit: Alex Gorosh and Wylie Overstreet
Wylie Overstreet adjusts an illuminated scale model of Saturn on its post. Still frame from video. Copyright and credit: Alex Gorosh and Wylie Overstreet

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

6 Responses

  1. One thing I wish these guys had included is some sense of the time factor. Their solar system appears to be a swarming beehive of motion but consider that marble Earth taking a full year to travel around its desert path. A smaller scale sub-video showing the Earth’s motion along its dirt track to the proper time scale would have been informative. I don’t have a clue what that would look like, off the top of my head. Great stuff, anyway. Norman Sanker

    1. astrobob

      Interesting and good idea Norman. Given the scale, the movement wouldn’t be too difficult to see for the inner planets. The outer – I’m not so sure. Maybe someone reading these comments will do the calculations.

  2. Hey Bob, my rough calculations indicate the marble-sized Earth (I don’t think they ever give an exact size) should move around it’s dirt track orbit at about 5 inches per hour. I approached this problem from two different directions and got the same answer so I’m moderately confident. (Ha!) This says to me that, not only are the planets incomprehensibly far apart, but they’re crawling along at a snail’s pace relative to the vast distances involved. I’ve seen the number 66,000 mph for the Earth’s orbital speed. That’s 8.5 time the Earth’s diameter each hour. If you moved a globe across your living room rug at that rate–could you even perceive the motion? Check my math, I’m prepared to be humiliated. Norman

    1. astrobob

      Peter,
      If Norm is correct and Earth moves 8.5 diameters per hour and assuming the marble’s about 1/2 in across, that means the Earth marble moves about 4.25 inches per hour. Applied to Neptune, I get close to your value, .77 inch per hour.

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