On a dry lake bed in Nevada, the United States, a group of friends built a scale model of the solar system with complete planetary orbits. They first put a Sun with a diameter of 1.5 meters (5 feet) in the center, and then draw the planets’ orbits accordingly.

We evolved here on Earth, and for thousands of years, we just thought the Earth is also the universe, or at least the most important and the biggest part of it. Our brains have been adapted to live on Earth and the basic survival needs.

So we can deal with moderately sized objects which have moderate velocity, we can understand small numbers like 1, 2, and 50, and so on, and we can conceptualize small distances like two kilometers or the distance from our “cave” to the nearest river. But when the numbers and distances get bigger, I mean much bigger, like the distance from Earth to the Sun, it becomes incredibly difficult to conceptualize.

Now, on a dry lake bed in Nevada, the United States, a group of friends built a scale model of the solar system with complete planetary orbits: a true illustration of our place in the universe.

They constructed the model by drawing circles in the desert. They take Earth’s size only as small as a marble – in that scale, they put a 1.5 meter (5 feet) (in diameter) Sun in the center, and draw the planets around it with the scale (they measured the distance and set each of the eight planets, accounting for their respective orbits). And the result is stunning (please watch the video below).

A scale model of the solar system drawn in the desert: On a dry lakebed in Nevada, a group of friends builds the first scale model of the solar system with complete planetary orbits: a true illustration of our place in the universe. A film by Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh.

The enormous model built by this group of friends is a potent testament to the true enormity of the solar system, an achievement that we can barely comprehend without such physical aids. The model extended out to a scale-accurate representation of the orbit of Neptune, which was an immense 5.6 kilometers (3.5 miles) away from the central Sun.

The scale model was not only accurate in the placement of each planet but also in the size of each planet. This meant that Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, was appropriately represented as larger than all the other planets, even though it was just a slightly larger ball bearing in the context of the model.

So why does this model matter? Why is it important to our understanding of the solar system?

Firstly, a model like this provides a visual and spatial experience that simply can’t be captured in numbers or words. The sheer distances involved in space are so vast that they’re impossible to comprehend. Sure, we can say that the Earth is 149.6 million kilometers (about 93 million miles) away from the Sun, but what does that number actually mean? It’s so big that it just becomes abstract and difficult to comprehend.

However, when we can physically see and experience the distances and scales involved through a model, it gives us a tangible point of reference. Walking the 5.6 kilometers (3.5 miles) to the orbit of Neptune impresses upon us just how far away it actually is. It makes the abstract concept of distance in space more real and easier to grasp, thereby making the true size of the solar system more understandable.

Secondly, this model helps us to visualize the relative sizes and distances of the planets. On a typical flat map or computer screen, it’s easy to misunderstand the proportions and think that the planets are closer to each other than they are. The model shows that, in reality, the planets are incredibly far apart from one another, which can help to dispel misconceptions.

Finally, models like this one help us to better understand our place in the universe. It underscores how small and fragile our Earth is within the grand scale of the solar system, let alone the universe. It helps us to appreciate our planet more, reinforcing the importance of preserving and caring for it.

In conclusion, scale models, like the one built on a dry lake bed in Nevada, play a significant role in demystifying the unimaginable vastness of the solar system. They help to bring the enormous numbers and distances down to a human scale, allowing us to better comprehend the world beyond our Earthly experience and challenge our perception of the universe.

Scale Model of the Solar System on Desert: Planetary distances scaled

If you put a 1.5 meter Sun in the center (the actual diameter of the Sun is 1,392,684 km / 865,373.72 mi):

  • The distance between the Earth and the Moon is much bigger than most people think.
  • Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun would be 68 meters (224 feet) away.
  • The distance between Venus and the Sun would be 120 meters (447 feet).
  • The Earth would be a small marble, with a distance of 176 meters (579 feet).
  • Mars (we put a few robots on it) would be 269 meters (881 feet) from the Sun.
  • The distances between the outer planets and the Sun are incredible. Jupiter: 0.92 km (0.57 miles), Saturn: 1.7 km (1.1 miles), Uranus: 3.4 km (2.1 miles), Neptune: 5.6 km (3.5 miles).
  • Now multiply these distances by almost a billion (still a very large number to conceptualize), and you’ll get the real-size model of our Solar System
  • Their scale is roughly 1 meter to 850,000 km. Proxima Centauri is about 40 trillion km away. At their model’s scale, then, Proxima Centauri would be at least 47,000 km from the sun. The Earth is about 40,000 km around, the largest distance you could measure on the Earth’s surface, starting from the Black Rock Desert, literally faster circumnavigating around the world and coming to the same place again, would still be only about two-fifths of the distance needed to represent Proxima Centauri at this scale. Astronomical distances are pretty much unimaginable. And Proxima Centauri is about 0.15 times the diameter of our Sun. On this scale, the sun is about 1.5 meters across. So a model of Proxima would be about 23 cm across, roughly the size of a soccer ball.

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

As we got farther and farther away, the Earth diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine… seeing this has to change a man.

James Irwin, Apollo 15
Scaled model of the Solar System on Nevada Desert
A Scale Model of the Solar System Drawn in the Desert: On a dry lake bed in Nevada, the United States, a group of friends built the first scale model of the solar system with complete planetary orbits: a true illustration of our place in the universe.


M. Özgür Nevres

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