Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The 1000 yard model (or Earth as a peppercorn)

One of the things I realized while participating in Milky Way Nights this summer, is that very few of us really comprehend the vast scale of the solar system - never mind the universe. So here's something worth imagining - the 1000 yard model. Reading the following description is no substitute by the way. It gives a sense of the scale, but you have to go out and physically take the steps and look at the distances, if the awesomeness is to set in. You'll need 10 people to demonstrate this model well, as each person would be holding one of the solar system objects.

First, collect the objects you need to represent the solar system's largest bodies. They are:

Sun - any ball, diameter 8 inches (bowling balls are 8")
Mercury - a pinhead, diameter 0.03 inches
Venus - a peppercorn, diameter 0.08 inches
Earth - a second peppercorn
Mars - a second pinhead
Jupiter - a chestnut or a pecan, diameter 0.90 inches
Saturn - a hazelnut or an acorn, diameter 0.70 inches
Uranus - a peanut or coffeebean, diameter 0.30 inches
Neptune - a second peanut or coffeebean
Pluto - a third pinhead (or smaller, since Pluto is the smallest planet)

The three pins should be stuck through pieces of paper or an index card, otherwise their heads will be virtually invisible. If you like, you can fasten the other planets onto labelled cards as well.

Head outside and find a spot where you can walk 1000 yards (1000 paces). Put the Sun ball down, or have the Sun person hold it in one spot and walk away as follows:

10 paces - have the Mercury bearer stop with their card and pinhead.
Another 9 paces. Venus stops with the peppercorn.
Another 7 paces. Earth stops. That's 93,000,000 miles. That's one AU (astronomical unit).
Another 14 paces. Mars stops.
Another 95 paces to Jupiter.
Another 112 paces. Saturn goes here.
Another 249 paces. Uranus goes here. This is half way to Pluto. For reals.
Another 281 paces. Neptune goes here.
Another 242 paces. Pluto goes here.

Now of course all this assumes that every planet is in alignment, which it never is, but you get the idea. You have marched more than half a mile or 1000 yards! The edge of the solar system, beyond the Oort cloud, where comets come form, is another 1000 yards out. A light year, in this scale, is 1000 miles. The distance to our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4200 miles at this scale. That's like going from Thule Greenland to Mexico City.

Bonus: Time to various solar system objects from Earth at the (fictional) speed of Warp 1.

Moon: 1.3 seconds.
Mars: 3 minutes.
Sun: 8.3 minutes.
Jupiter: almost 33 minutes.
Saturn: 1 hour.
Uranus: 2.4 hours.
Nepture: 4 hours.
End of the heliosphere: 20 hours

No comments: