What if we could make a spaceship that is capable of leaving the solar system at the speed of light? How much time would it take to enter interstellar space?

Our Solar system is big, and vast, despite it being really small compared to our galaxy, not to mention the complete universe. To put this into perspective, you can think of yourself as a photon emitted by the Sun. It takes about 8 minutes to reach the Earth after a photon has been emitted from the Sun’s surface. And it takes 5 hours to get out to Pluto from the Earth. The edge of the Solar System is far beyond the orbit of Pluto.

But, where’s the edge of the Solar System? Well, It’s complicated. Informally, the term “solar system” is often used to mean the space out to the last planet – Neptune. Some scientists think that the solar system goes out to the Oort Cloud, the source of the comets. The inner edge of the main part of the Oort Cloud could be as close as 1,000 AU (Astronomical Unit, the distance between the Earth and the Sun, which is around 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers) from our sun. The outer edge is estimated to be around 100,000 AU.

So, it would take around 140 hours to reach the edge of the solar system a photon emitted by the Sun if we take the inner edge of the Oort cloud.

Solar System in logarithmic scale
Solar System in logarithmic scale. Distances are in AU (Astronoical Unit). An Astronomical Unit (AU) is a unit of measurement used in astronomy to describe the vast distances in our solar system and beyond. It is defined as the average distance between the Earth and the Sun, approximately 149.6 million kilometers or about 93 million miles. This unit provides a convenient way to express and compare distances within the solar system, as it is more manageable than using kilometers or miles for such large scales. The AU is a standard unit of measurement in astronomical studies, helping scientists and astronomers describe the positions and movements of celestial bodies relative to each other. Image: NASA

Before the Oort cloud, there’s a region called the heliopause. The heliopause is the theoretical boundary where the Sun’s solar wind is stopped by the interstellar medium; where the solar wind’s strength is no longer great enough to push back the interstellar wind. The crossing of the heliopause should be signaled by a sharp drop in the temperature of charged particles, a change in the direction of the magnetic field, and an increase in the amount of galactic cosmic rays.

In May 2012, Voyager 1, the farthest spacecraft from Earth as well as the farthest human-made object, detected a rapid increase in such cosmic rays (a 9% increase in a month, following a more gradual increase of 25% from Jan. 2009 to Jan. 2012), suggesting it was approaching the heliopause. In the fall of 2013, NASA announced that Voyager 1 had crossed the heliopause as of August 25, 2012. This was at a distance of 121 AU (18 billion km) from the Sun. Our photon emitted by the Sun needs around 16.5 hours to reach there.

It will take about 300 years for Voyager 1 to reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud and possibly about 30,000 years to fly beyond it.

Video: Leaving the Solar System at the Speed Of Light

The 45-minute video titled “Riding Light” shows leaving the Solar System at the speed of light below stops at Jupiter, the fifth planet in our Solar System. It would be a long, very long video if it showed the entire journey.

Witness the beauty and vastness of the universe as we journey beyond the boundaries of our own little corner of space. Get ready to be amazed by this incredible video of leaving the solar system at the speed of light.

Riding Light – Leaving the Solar System at the Speed Of Light

Distances of planets, asteroids, and Pluto from the Sun [in light hours and minutes]

Approximately, on average:

  • Mercury: 3 minutes and 13 seconds [0.39 AU]
  • Venus: 6 minutes [0.72 AU]
  • Earth: 8 minutes 20 seconds [1 AU]
  • Mars: 12 minutes and 40 seconds [1.52 AU]
  • Vesta (the brightest asteroid visible from Earth): 19 minutes and 40 seconds [2.36 AU]
  • Ceres (a dwarf planet in the middle main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter – it was the first asteroid discovered on 1 January 180): 23 Minutes [2.8 AU]
  • 10 Hygiea (the fourth-largest asteroid in the Solar System by both volume and mass): 28 minutes and 8 seconds [3.14 AU]
  • Jupiter: 43 Minutes 17 seconds [5.2 AU]
  • Saturn: 1 Hour 14 minutes 55 seconds [9 AU]
  • Uranus: 2 Hours, 46 Minutes and 28 Seconds [20 AU]
  • Pluto: 5 Hours, 24 Minutes and 39 Seconds [39 AU]

From the description of the video:

“In our terrestrial view of things, the speed of light seems incredibly fast. But as soon as you view it against the vast distances of the universe, it’s unfortunately very slow. This animation illustrates, in real-time, the journey of a photon of light emitted from the surface of the sun and traveling across a portion of the solar system, from a human perspective.”

“I’ve taken liberties with certain things like the alignment of planets and asteroids, as well as ignoring the laws of relativity concerning what a photon actually “sees” or how time is experienced at the speed of light, but overall I’ve kept the size and distances of all the objects as accurately as possible. I also decided to end the animation just past Jupiter as I wanted to keep the running length below an hour.”

If the video above was more than 100,000 years long, it would cover the entire Milky Way at the speed of light. And how big the observable universe is? Think of a video like that, but 46.508 billion years in length.


M. Özgür Nevres

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