Any science classroom would seem incomplete without a picture of the solar system. The Sun is always in the center, along with eight planets (nine, if you, like me, love Pluto a bit too much) orbiting around it, followed by the Kuiper belt, all of which is contained within the enigmatic Oort Cloud. We can see their opulence, and wonder at the magnificence of the Great Beyond – the vast blackness of deep space.
The only thing is… all of these pictures are wrong. Sorry to disappoint you or shatter those childhood dreams.
I’m not claiming that the positions of the planets are wrong, or that the asteroid belt is some conspiracy propagated by the Illuminati. The content of these classroom diagrams isn’t up for debate, but what is problematic is the fact that they ignore the most important feature of the Solar System – all the space inside of it. Confused? Let’s take a trip through the Solar System and try to understand just how vast it truly is.
- Let’s start with the inner planets first. They happen to be very close to the Sun, so there’s nothing extraordinarily dramatic about the distances between them. What is dramatic though, is their minuscule sizes. If the Sun’s diameter was reduced in scale to 30 cm (the average length of a ruler), Mercury would be 1 mm wide, Venus would be 2.6 mm, Earth would be 2.7 mm wide, and Mars would only be 1.4 mm wide. The inner planets are basically the size of a period in comparison to an A4 notebook paper Sun!
- The journey from Mars to Jupiter is 3 times as long as the journey from the Sun to Mars. Sure, it has the asteroid belt in between, but that isn’t as packed with asteroids as you may think. As a matter of fact, if you clumped all the asteroids together, they would only constitute about 4% of the Moon’s mass. In other words, don’t worry about your favorite sci-fi spacecraft getting smashed to bits by asteroids – there’s plenty of empty space around them!
- Jupiter happens to be significantly larger than all the inner planets, but the Sun is still about 10 times larger than Jupiter – the 5th planet from the Sun.
- The next big and beautiful planet on our journey is Saturn! This is another gas giant, much like Jupiter, and is approximately 12 times smaller than the Sun. As we go further away from Saturn, there is hardly anything out there that grabs our attention. You see, humans aren’t evolved to understand the scale of emptiness that defines the majority of the universe, and our solar system. If we see a point, we immediately search for another, because everything in between is inconsequential to us. However, the universe in which we live wasn’t created to accommodate our narrow mindsets.
- Finally, we reach Uranus, but if you think we’re nearing the end of our journey, think again. Uranus is actually somewhere around the midpoint between the Sun and Pluto.
- Neptune is far away. I mean really, really far away. The distance from Jupiter to Neptune is 5 times longer than the distance from Earth to Jupiter. At this point, you’re probably realizing that the universe is made up almost entirely of Nothing. Technically, it’s 99.999999999999999999958% nothing but Nothing.
- At long last, we reach Pluto. Perhaps you can see why some people no longer consider it a planet anymore. To be fair, it is really remote – 40 times farther away from Earth than the Earth is from the Sun. If Jupiter was as large as the period ending this statement, Pluto would still be 10 meters away! Not only that, but Pluto is also tiny – less than half the size of Mercury, to be precise.
- That’s a pretty exhausting trip, don’t you think? If a map of the Solar System was created to scale, with the Moon being the size of a single pixel, 1,256 computer screens held side-by-side would be required to encompass the entire length, from the Sun to Pluto. If printed, this map would be 145 meters long (475 ft), which is about the size of 1.5 football fields.
- Wait! You may not believe this, but we’re not quite done yet! We still have the Kuiper belt to navigate, and we still have to reach the Oort cloud. Surely it can’t be that far out, right?
The fastest spacecraft ever made is New Horizons, which just recently sent back amazing high-definition images of Pluto. At a speed of 58,536 km/hr (36,372 miles/hr), it took New Horizons 9 years and 9 months to reach Pluto.
If we continued traveling at the same speed beyond Pluto, we would reach the Oort cloud – and I am so sorry to say this- in 10,000 years.
- Yup. The Oort Cloud is REALLY far away. The distance from the Sun to Pluto is just 1/50,000th of the way out of the Solar System. With almost nothing out there but random icy rocks like Pluto, as well as potential comets, traveling beyond Pluto is ‘uneventful’ to say the least.
This video describes a particularly brilliant attempt at creating a model of the Solar System to scale.
As you can see, ‘Space’ is definitely the most appropriate name you can give to the Universe. We’re just special glitches in an otherwise uniform expanse of Nothing. I suppose that’s why our existence is so special!