We’ve all seen illustrations of the Solar System. They’re in our school textbooks, on posters, on websites, on t-shirts… in some cases they’re used to represent the word “science” itself (and for good reason.) But, for the most part, they’re all wrong. At least where scale is concerned.
Sure, you can show the Sun and planets in relative size to each other accurately. But then the actual distances between them will probably be way off.* And OK, you can outline the planets’ concentric orbits around the Sun to scale pretty easily. But then there’s no convenient way to make sure that the planets themselves would actually be visible. In order to achieve both, you have to leave the realm of convenience behind entirely and make a physical model that, were you to start with an Earth the size of a marble, would stretch for several miles (and that’s not even taking Pluto into consideration.)
This is exactly what filmmaker Wylie Overstreet and four of his friends did in 2014, spending a day and a half on a dry lake bed in Nevada where they measured out and set up a scale model of the Sun and planets (not including Pluto, don’t tell Alan Stern) including their respective circular orbits. They then shot time-lapse images of their illuminated cars driving around the orbits. The resulting video is educational, mesmerizing, beautiful, and overall a wonderful demonstration of the staggering scale of space in the Solar System.
It’s a long way out to the dwarf planet Pluto. So, just how fast could we get there?
Pluto, the Dwarf planet, is an incomprehensibly long distance away. Seriously, it’s currently more than 5 billion kilometers away from Earth. It challenges the imagination that anyone could ever travel that kind of distance, and yet, NASA’s New Horizons has been making the journey, and it’s going to arrive there July, 2015.
You may have just heard about this news. And I promise you, when New Horizons makes its close encounter, it’s going to be everywhere. So let me give you the advanced knowledge on just how amazing this journey is, and what it would take to cross this enormous gulf in the Solar System.
Pluto travels on a highly elliptical orbit around the Sun. At its closest point, known as “perihelion”, Pluto is only 4.4 billion kilometers out. That’s nearly 30 AU, or 30 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Pluto last reached this point on September 5th, 1989. At its most distant point, known as “aphelion”, Pluto reaches a distance of 7.3 billion kilometers, or 49 AU. This will happen on August 23, 2113.
I know, these numbers seem incomprehensible and lose their meaning. So let me give you some context. Light itself takes 4.6 hours to travel from the Earth to Pluto. If you wanted to send a signal to Pluto, it would take 4.6 hours for your transmission to reach Pluto, and then an additional 4.6 hours for their message to return to us.
Let’s talk spacecraft. When New Horizons blasted off from Earth, it was going 58,000 km/h. Just for comparison, astronauts in orbit are merely jaunting along at 28,000 km/h. That’s its speed going away from the Earth. When you add up the speed of the Earth, New Horizons was moving away from the Sun at a blistering 160,000 km/h.
Unfortunately, the pull of gravity from the Sun slowed New Horizons down. By the time it reached Jupiter, it was only going 68,000 km/h. It was able to steal a little velocity from Jupiter and crank its speed back up to 83,000 km/h. When it finally reaches Pluto, it’ll be going about 50,000 km/h. So how long did this journey take?
New Horizons launched on January 19, 2006, and it’ll reach Pluto on July 14, 2015. Do a little math and you’ll find that it has taken 9 years, 5 months and 25 days. The Voyager spacecraft did the distance between Earth and Pluto in about 12.5 years, although, neither spacecraft actually flew past Pluto. And the Pioneer spacecraft completed the journey in about 11 years.
Could you get to Pluto faster? Absolutely. With a more powerful rocket, and a lighter spacecraft payload, you could definitely shave down the flight time. But there are a couple of problems. Rockets are expensive, coincidentally bigger rockets are super expensive. The other problem is that getting to Pluto faster means that it’s harder to do any kind of science once you reach the dwarf planet.
New Horizons made the fastest journey to Pluto, but it’s also going to fly past the planet at 50,000 km/h. That’s less time to take high resolution images. And if you wanted to actually go into orbit around Pluto, you’d need more rockets to lose all that velocity. So how long does it take to get to Pluto? Roughly 9-12 years. You could probably get there faster, but then you’d get less science done, and it probably wouldn’t be worth the rush.
Are you super excited about the New Horizons flyby of Pluto? Tell us all about it in the comments below.
If you’ve read your share of sci-fi, and I know you have, you’ve read stories about another Earth-sized planet orbiting on the other side of the Solar System, blocked by the Sun. Could it really be there?
No. Nooooo. No. Just no.
This is a delightful staple in science fiction. There’s a mysterious world that orbits the Sun exactly the same distance as Earth, but it’s directly across the Solar System from us; always hidden by the Sun. Little do we realize they know we’re here, and right now they’re marshalling their attack fleet to invade our planet. We need to invade counter-Earth before they attack us and steal our water, eat all our cheese or kidnap our beloved Nigella Lawson and Alton Brown to rule as their culinary queen and king of Other-Earth.
Well, could this happen? Could there be another planet in a stable orbit, hiding behind the Sun? The answer, as you probably suspect, is NO. No. Nooooo. Just no.
Well, that’s not completely true. If some powerful and mysterious flying spaghetti being magically created another planet and threw it into orbit, it would briefly be hidden from our view because of the Sun. But we don’t exist in a Solar System with just the Sun and the Earth. There are those other planets orbiting the Sun as well. As the Earth orbits the Sun, it’s subtly influenced by those other planets, speeding up or slowing down in its orbit.
So, while we’re being pulled a little forwards in our orbit by Jupiter, that other planet would be on the opposite side of the Sun. And so, we’d speed up a little and catch sight of it around the Sun. Over the years, these various motions would escalate, and that other planet would be seen more and more in the sky as we catch up to it in orbit.
Eventually, our orbits would intersect, and there’d be an encounter. If we were lucky, the planets would miss each other, and be kicked into new, safer, more stable orbits around the Sun. And if we were unlucky, they’d collide with each other, forming a new super-sized Earth, killing everything on both planets, obviously.
What if there was originally two half-Earths and they collided and that’s how we got current Earth! Or 4 quarter Earths, each with their own population? And then BAM. One big Earth. Or maybe 64 64th Earths all transforming and converging to form VOLTREARTH.
Now, I’m now going to make things worse, and feed your imagination a little with some actual science. There are a few places where objects can share a stable orbit. These locations are known as Lagrange points, regions where the gravity of two objects create a stable location for a third object. The best of these are known as the L4 and L5 Lagrangian points. L4 is about 60-degrees ahead of a planet in its orbit, and L5 is about 60-degrees behind a planet in its orbit.
A small enough body, relative to the planet, could hang out in a stable location for billions of years. Jupiter has a collection of Trojan asteroids at its L4 and L5 points of its orbit, always holding at a stable distance from the planet. Which means, if you had a massive enough gas giant, you could have a less massive terrestrial world in a stable orbit 60-degrees away from the planet.
Well, it was a pretty clever idea. Unfortunately, the forces of gravity conspire to make this hidden planet idea completely impossible. Most importantly, when someone tells you there’s a hidden planet on the other side of the Sun, just remember these words:
Go ahead and name your favorite sci-fi stories that have used this trope. Tell us in the comments below.
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Is our Solar System normal? Or is it weird? How does the Solar System fit within the strange star systems we’ve discovered in the Milky Way so far?
With all the beautiful images that come down the pipe from Hubble, our Solar System has been left with celestial body image questions rivaling that of your average teenager. They’re questions we’re all familiar with. Is my posture crooked? Do I look pasty? Are my arms too long? Is it supposed to bulge out like this in the middle? Some of my larger asteroids are slightly asymmetrical. Can everyone tell? And of course the toughest question of all… Am I normal?
The idea that stars are suns with planets orbiting them dates back to early human history. This was generally accompanied by the idea that other planetary systems would be much like our own. It’s only in the last few decades that we’ve had real evidence of planets around other stars, known as exoplanets. The first extrasolar planet was discovered around a pulsar in 1992 and the first “hot jupiter” was discovered in 1995.
Most of the known exoplanets have been discovered by the amazing Kepler spacecraft. Kepler uses the transit method, observing stars over long periods of time to see if they dim as a planet passes in front of the star. Since then, astronomers have found more than 1700 exoplanets, and 460 stars are known to have multiple planets. Most of these stellar systems are around main sequence stars, just like the Sun. Leaving us with plenty of systems for comparison.
So, is our Solar System normal? Planets in a stellar system tend to have roughly circular orbits, just like our Solar system. They have a range of larger and smaller planets, just like ours. Most of the known systems are even around G-type stars. Just like ours.….and we are even starting to find Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of their stars. JUST LIKE OURS!
Not so fast…Other stellar systems don’t seem to have the division of small rocky planets closer to the star and larger gas planets farther away. In fact, large Jupiter-type planets are generally found close to the star. This makes our solar system rather unusual.
Computer simulations of early planetary formation shows that large planets tend to move inward toward their star as they form, due to its interaction with the material of the protoplanetary disk. This would imply that large planets are often close to the star, which is what we observe. Large planets in our own system are unusually distant from the Sun because of a gravitational dance between Jupiter and Saturn that happened when our Solar System was young.
Although our Solar System is slightly unusual, there are some planetary systems that are downright quirky. There are planetary systems where the orbits are tilted at radically different angles, like Kepler 56, and a sci-fi favorite, the planets that orbit two stars like Kepler 16 and 34. There is even a planet so close to its star that its year lasts only 18 hours, known 55 Cancri e.
And so, the Kepler telescope has presented us with a wealth of exoplanets, that we can compare our beautiful Solar System to. Future telescopes such as Gaia, which was launched in 2013, TESS and PLATO slated for launch in 2017 and 2024 will likely discover even more. Perhaps even discovering the holy grail of exoplanets, a habitable planet with life…
And the who knows, maybe we’ll find another planet… just like ours.
What say you? Where should we go looking for habitable worlds in this big bad universe of ours? Tell us in the comments.
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If you’ve ever wanted to know what 3,538 exoplanets look like spinning around their stars, here you go!
This is the third and latest installment of the mesmerizing Kepler Orrery videos by Daniel Fabrycky from the Kepler science team. It shows the relative sizes of the orbits and planets in the multi-transiting planetary systems discovered by Kepler up to November 2013 (according to the Kepler site, 3,538 candidates so far.) According to Daniel “the colors simply go by order from the star (the most colorful is the 7-planet system KOI-351). The terrestrial planets of the Solar System are shown in gray.”
When an object is orbiting the Earth, it’s really falling. The trick, described in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. There are several different kinds of orbits, and they are good for different reasons. From suborbital jumps to geostationary orbit, time to learn everything there is to know about going around and around and around.
It was once thought that our planet was part of a “typical” solar system. Inner rocky worlds, outlying gas giants, some asteroids and comets sprinkled in for good measure. All rotating around a central star in more or less the same direction. Typical.
But after seeing what’s actually out there, it turns out ours may not be so typical after all…
Astronomers researching exoplanetary systems – many discovered with NASA’s Kepler Observatory – have found quite a few containing “hot Jupiters” that orbit their parent star very closely. (A hot Jupiter is the term used for a gas giant – like Jupiter – that resides in an orbit very close to its star, is usually tidally locked, and thus gets very, very hot.) These worlds are like nothing seen in our own solar system…and it’s now known that some actually have retrograde orbits – that is, orbiting their star in the opposite direction.
“That’s really weird, and it’s even weirder because the planet is so close to the star. How can one be spinning one way and the other orbiting exactly the other way? It’s crazy. It so obviously violates our most basic picture of planet and star formation.”
– Frederic A. Rasio, theoretical astrophysicist, Northwestern University
Now retrograde movement does exist in our solar system. Venus rotates in a retrograde direction, so the Sun rises in the west and sets in the east, and a few moons of the outer planets orbit “backwards” relative to the other moons. But none of the planets in our system have retrograde orbits; they all move around the Sun in the same direction that the Sun rotates. This is due to the principle of conservation of angular momentum, whereby the initial motion of the disk of gas that condensed to form our Sun and afterwards the planets is reflected in the current direction of orbital motions. Bottom line: the direction they moved when they were formed is (generally) the direction they move today, 4.6 billion years later. Newtonian physics is okay with this, and so are we. So why are we now finding planets that blatantly flaunt these rules?
The answer may be: peer pressure.
Or, more accurately, powerful tidal forces created by neighboring massive planets and the star itself.
By fine-tuning existing orbital mechanics calculations and creating computer simulations out of them, researchers have been able to show that large gas planets can be affected by a neighboring massive planet in such a way as to have their orbits drastically elongated, sending them spiraling closer in toward their star, making them very hot and, eventually, even flip them around. It’s just basic physics where energy is transferred between objects over time.
It just so happens that the objects in question are huge planets and the time scale is billions of years. Eventually something has to give. In this case it’s orbital direction.
“We had thought our solar system was typical in the universe, but from day one everything has looked weird in the extrasolar planetary systems. That makes us the oddball really. Learning about these other systems provides a context for how special our system is. We certainly seem to live in a special place.”
– Frederic A. Rasio
Yes, it certainly does seem that way.
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation. Details of the discovery are published in the May 12th issue of the journal Nature.
Main image credit: Jason Major. Created from SDO (AIA 304) image of the Sun from October 17, 2010 (NASA/SDO and the AIA science team) and an image of Jupiter taken by the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft on October 23, 2000 (NASA/JPL/SSI).
When it comes to space, the word eccentricity nearly always refers to orbital eccentricity, or the eccentricity of the orbit of an astronomical body, like a planet, star, or moon. In turn, this relies on a mathematical description, or summary, of the body’s orbit, assuming Newtonian gravity (or something very close to it). Such orbits are approximately elliptical in shape, and a key parameter describing the ellipse is its eccentricity.
In simple terms, a circular orbit has an eccentricity of zero, and a parabolic or radial orbit an eccentricity of 1 (if the orbit is hyperbolic, its eccentricity is greater than 1); of course, if the eccentricity is 1 or greater, the ‘orbit’ is a bit of a misnomer!
In a planetary system with more than one planet (or for a planet with more than one moon, or a multiple star system other than a binary), orbits are only approximately elliptical, because each planet has a gravitational pull on every other one, and these accelerations produce non-elliptical orbits. And modeling orbits assuming the theory of general relativity describes gravity also leads to orbits which are only approximately elliptical (this is particular so for binary pulsars).
Nonetheless, orbits are nearly always summarized as ellipses, with eccentricity as one of the key orbital parameters. Why? Because this is very convenient, and because deviations from ellipses can be easily described by small perturbations.
The formula for eccentricity, in a two-body system under Newtonian gravity, is relatively easy to write, but, unfortunately, beyond the capabilities of the HTML coding of this webpage.
However, if you know the maximum distance of a body, from the center of mass – the apoapsis (apohelion, for solar system planets), ra – and the minimum such distance – the periapsis (perihelion), rp – then the eccentricity, e, of the orbit is just:
When objects in the Solar System orbit other objects, they can either go in a regular prograde direction, or in a retrograde direction.
Almost all of the orbits in the Solar System are caused by the initial collapse of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago from the solar nebula. As the cloud of gas and dust collapsed down into the stellar disk, the conservation of angular momentum caused the disk to rotate. The Sun formed out of a bulge in the center of the Solar System, and the planets formed out of lumps in the protoplanetary disk.
And so, all of the planets in the Solar System orbit in a prograde direction. And then the planets themselves also collapsed down, and started rotating because of the conservation of angular momentum. And again, almost all of the planets rotate in a prograde direction; except one: Venus. When seen from above their north pole, all the planets rotate in a counter-clockwise direction. But Venus is actually rotating in a clockwise direction.
It’s believed that most of the moons in the Solar System formed in place around their planets. And so they orbit in a prograde direction as well, orbiting in the same direction that their planet turns. There are a few exceptions; however, like Neptune’s moon Titan, which orbits in a retrograde direction.
Because the Earth and the planets are orbiting the Sun, we get a changing perspective of their position as we go around the Sun. The planets can seem to slow down, stop, and then move backwards in the sky. Of course, they’re not actually going backwards in their orbit, but we’re seeing that from our perspective. When the planets move in this backwards direction, they’re said to be “in retrograde”. And then they start moving forward again and come out of retrograde.