Distance Between Planets

Comprehending The Distance Between Planets

The distance between planets can be summed up in one word -  awesome! Models we usually see which show the distance between planets, whether in a planetarium or in a magazine, really don't give us a very accurate idea of how large the solar system is, and how great the distance between planets, compared to the relative sizes of the planets, really is.

The problem is, as large as the sun is, and as large as the two largest planets, Jupiter and Saturn are, the sun and the planets are dwarfed when compared to the distance from one planet to the next. Admittedly, Mercury lies quite close to the sun on the scale of things, and the same might be said for Venus, the Earth, and Mars. But when the discussion turns to the so-called outer planets, the distances really become vast. They are so great that it's amazing we can even see Jupiter or Saturn at all in spite of their huge sizes.

Starting With A Bowling Ball - To attempt to get a grasp on the distance between planets lets start with a model consisting of the sun and the earth. If we were to use something about the size of a bowling ball for the sun, the earth in comparison would be roughly the size of a .22 caliber BB. As far as actual size is concerned, the diameter of our 8" sun is actually 800,000 miles. In our model, 1" equals 100,000 miles, so a yard would represent 3,600,000 miles when we start looking into distances between planets.

The distance from the sun to the earth is 93 million miles, which on our model will be a distance of 26 yards. Now you can begin to see the relationship between the sun and the planets in terms of relative size and distances. We have our bowling ball (the sun), our BB (the earth), separated by 26 yards. It seems somewhat amazing we could ever get a sunburn, not to mention global warming!

The Inner Planets - Mercury is only 10 yards from the sun (on our scale Mercury is about the size of the head of a pin), Venus is 19 yards away, and then we have the Earth at 26 yards. Mars is 40 yards from the sun (14 from the earth). On our scale you can see that Mars is about twice the distance from the Earth (just over 50 million miles) as is Venus.

The Outer Planets - Now we need to do some serious walking, with a very long tape measure, to get to the next planet, Jupiter. On our scale, Jupiter, the largest planet, is about the size of a ping-pong ball, and is 95 yards from Mars, 135 yards from the Earth, and 161 yards from the sun. In terms of the length of a football field, if the bowling ball (the sun) is on the goal line, the Earth would be the BB on the 26 yard line, within easy field goal range, Mars would be on the 40, barely within field goal range, and Jupiter would be a ping-pong ball, 61 yards beyond the other goal line – and not even in the stadium.

At 161 yards from the sun, we need to go another 112 yards to reach Saturn, another ping-pong ball sized planet. Now we're 273 yards, nearly 3 football fields from the sun. That's 982 million miles, and it's nearly that far from Saturn to Uranus (249 yards or 896 million miles), and an additional 281 yards (just over 1 billion miles, to reach Neptune, which in spite of its relatively large size, cannot be seen with the naked eye, although Uranus can be if you know where to look. Finally, to reach Pluto (another pin head) it's going to take yet another 242 yards or 871 million miles more. Pluto is 1,019 yards form the sun, nearly 2/3 of a mile on our scale.

Nearest Star - Want to know where the nearest star is? As the saying goes - "you ain't seen nothin' yet"! Proxima Centauri, our nearest neighbor out there, is 4,000 miles away on our model. So, as you can see, the distance between planets is very large, especially when we're talking about the outer planets. Mars may be well without our reach as far as manned space flight is concerned, but Jupiter may be out of the question for a long, long time, and the fact that it's a planet that really doesn't have a solid surface may make landing a problem.