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How to Build a Seven-Mile-Wide Scale Model of the Solar System

It takes three-and-a-half miles to get from the Sun to Pluto

(Randy Faris/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

If you’ve ever seen an illustration of the solar system, the odds are good that it was wrong. Not that it messed up the order of the planets, but that the scale was completely off.

"Every single picture of the solar system that we encounter is not to scale," filmmaker Wylie Overstreet says in the latest video in the “To Scale” series. "If you put the orbits to scale on a piece of paper, the planets become microscopic, and you won't be able to see them."

The problem with depicting the solar system accurately is that it would be impossible to draw the planets orbiting around the sun on paper and have it be at all legible. At best, Overstreet demonstrates, you would see a series of concentric circles – the distances between them would render everything in our Earth’s neighborhood too miniscule to see.

So Overstreet and his partner, Alex Gorosh, decided to build a model that would accurately represent what the solar system actually looks like.

Heading out to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert (best known as where Burning Man takes place), the crew built a scale model seven miles in diameter, drawing out the orbits and filming models of the planets with a time-lapse camera, Bill Chappell writes for NPR. Everything involved is to scale: Jupiter is represented by a watermelon, while the sun, which is 864,938 miles across in real life, is represented in the video as a four-and-a-half-foot-wide weather balloon. Mercury is a globe that appears to be smaller than a dime.

"I have the world in my pocket somewhere," Overstreet says in one segment as he searches for the Earth.

Neil Armstrong famously said that one of the most striking experiences of being on the surface of the moon was looking back at the Earth and realizing that everything he had ever known could be blotted out if he just stuck up his thumb and closed one eye. And that was just from the moon – our planet’s closest neighbor. While Overstreet and Gorosh may not have left the surface of the Earth, their video makes it strikingly clear how small our planet actually is.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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