The Solar System Avenue

solar_systemFrom atoms to astronomical charts, Google Maps may be a cool tool to help to understand different distance and size scales.

I’ve always been fascinated by solar system models. All those worlds represented by colorful spheres aligned one after the other, starting from an enormous bright and yellow ball for the Sun.

Usually these models do a good job with the relative sizes of the Sun and each of the planets. But apart of that, they get everything so wrong.

First of all, the planets can’t be aligned along a straight line. It’s common sense that if one day this cosmic coincidence occurs, the world will end. (In fact, according to the Mayan calendar, this will happen three years ago.)

Second, the relative distances between the planets are always ridiculously misrepresented. It’s not artists’ fault, but it’s simply due to the very large difference between, on the one hand, the size of the bodies and, on the other, the distances between them; it’s impossible to draw both keeping the right scales at same time.

Solar system with aligned planets.

End-of-the-world style solar system model. By WP, via Wikimedia Commons.

That’s the same problem with the representation of atoms: if scales are respected, the nucleus should be drawn ten thousand times smaller than the entire atom. And nobody likes that: the powerful heavy nucleus—full with its protons and neutrons storing fantastic amounts of energy—can’t be reduced to an undignified dot in the middle of the electronic cloud.

Anyway, I had an idea to improve such multiscale representation: Google Maps, that’s the name.

Its handy zoom tool allied to our very basic daily-life sense of distances makes Google Maps an awesome tool to help us to visualize such counter-intuitive multiscale systems.

Let me work out an example. I’ll take Grenoble, a city I’m familiar with, to build up a solar system model.

Grenoble region is cut by a 7.9 km (4.9 mi) straight avenue. It’s so long that it gets different names along different segments. It starts in Grenoble city as Cours Jean Jaurès and runs south parallel to the Drac river. After 1.4 km, it becomes Cours de la Libération et du General de Gaulle, a name that truly makes justice to the avenue length. Then it leaves Grenoble city and crosses Échirolles, once more renamed Cours Jean Jaurès and with the numbering starting over from one (serious). The avenue doesn’t stop there, it continues cutting through Pont-de-Claix—a third city—now with the uninspired name Cours Saint-Andrés, where it finally ends.


Grenoble view from the Bastille. The Cours Jean Jaurès stretches for 7.9 km. Photo by MB.

For building my solar system model, I pinpointed the Sun at the beginning of the Jean Jaurès, just below the Bastille; I took the full extension of the avenue as the distance from the Sun to the farthest planet, Neptune, roughly 4.5×109 km (2.8×109 mi). Then, I filled out an Excel worksheet with Wikipedia data on distances and radii of the solar system bodies, and re-scaled them to 7.9:4.5×109. The last step was to create a Google Map using its measure tool to add the planets as geographical spots.

The embedded map is here. I suggest you play a bit with it before continuing reading. It’s interactive. You may zoom in and out, and get more information by clicking on the marks.

Now, walk with me.

In this scale, 7.9:4.5×109, the Sun is a ball taller than a person, 2.44 m (8 ft) across. Big, but not so impressive.

Mercury stands just 102 m (400 ft) from the Sun, still in the first block. Walking by, you could easily miss it. Mercury is a tiny 0.9 cm (0.35 in) marble.

We cross the Félix Viallet Avenue and find Venus at 190 m (623 ft) from the Sun. Another marble, not much bigger, 2.1 cm (0.83 in) large.

We walk only 73 m (240 ft) more and we’re at home, Earth. It’s roughly the same size as Venus. One meter away (39 in), stands the Moon.

Still before crossing the Cours Berriat, 400 m (1/4 mi) from the Sun, we find Mars, 1.2 cm (0.47 in) sized.

To get to the next planet, we may consider to take the tram E till the Vallier/Libération stop. Jupiter stands there at 1.4 km (0.87 mi) from the Sun, exactly where the avenue changes its name by the first time. The biggest planet in the solar system is a respectable 25 cm (9.8 in) sphere.

Saturn is at 1.1 km (0.68 mi) south to Jupiter, 2.5 km (1.6 mi) from the Sun. More or less the same size as Jupiter if we count the rings.

Now, we’re definitely going to need a car ride to reach Uranus, 5 km (3.1 mi) from the Sun, 9 cm (3.5 in) wide. We’re already in Échirolles.

Finally, Neptune. We find it at a round about in Pont-de-Claix, at 7.9 km (4.9 mi) from the Sun. It’s about the same size as Uranus.

If we keep going on a straight line south for 5 km more we will find Pluto. That’s if we can ever find a 0.4 cm (0.15 in) marble in the middle of a farm.

Notice, I’m only talking about average orbital distances. Pluto and the other dwarf planets have very eccentric orbits, and this makes difference. Pluto for instance, between perihelion and aphelion, may be anywhere from 7.8 to 12.8 km (4.9 to 8.0 mi).

You may be amazed to know that Voyagers 1 and 2 are already at 35 and 30 km (21.7 and 18.6 mi) from the Sun, near the border between the Isère and Drôme departments.

We could try to stretch the trip a bit more to the nearest star. Still within our scale, Proxima Centauri is 68,000 km (42,253 mi) from the Sun, ten times Earth’s radius. Naturally, this number doesn’t hold any sense anymore. But now that we know how to do our mutiscale representations with Google Maps, we could build, for instance, a map taking the Milk-Way radius as the full avenue and pinpointing the neighbor stars on it, just like I did with the planets.

I don’t know about you, but to me, this representation puts our corner in the universe under a new perspective. As I wrote in another post, different from what NASA and SciFi movies want us to believe, space is awfully boring. This street map representation gives another dimension to that. Just think for a moment: our solar system is like a city populated by few dozen very tiny marbles. Isn’t a weird waste of space?


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Categories: Science, Scientific Culture

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