Solar System Walk gives students an idea of vastness of outer space
On October 11, HFC physics and astronomy instructor Jesse Mason and his students completed a Solar System Walk, which is part of a multi-component, comprehensive midterm project in his astronomy class.
“My astronomy students are divided into five groups, and each group is assigned two planets to research and present on. The presentation involves building a virtual exhibit for teaching the unique characteristics of their planets and then giving their classmates a guided tour of the exhibit,” explained Mason, who was rewarded the YouTube Silver Creator Award for his physics videos earlier this year.
“Shocked to see how spread out our planets are”
Alongside building a virtual exhibit, each group creates billionth-scale models of their assigned planets (i.e., models that are one-billionth the actual sizes of the planets) and also determines the size and distance of their billionth-scale orbits.
“On the day of the Solar System Walk, I attach a billionth-scale model of our sun to my car, and the class walks to their scaled orbital distances from the sun,” said Mason. “In one of the pictures, my class was at the location of Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, which is the big red orb attached to my van in the distance.”
At this scale:
- Mercury is the size of a peppercorn 50 yards away from the sun.
- Venus is the size of a pants button 100 yards from the sun.
- Earth is imperceptibly larger than Venus and 150 yards from the sun.
- Mars is the size of a shirt button 225 yards from the sun.
“Building a billionth-scale model of our solar system is an unforgettable way to give astronomy students a sense of how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big space is!” said Mason. “Students are shocked to see how spread out our tiny terrestrial planets are. But they are absolutely flabbergasted when they find out how far the gas giants are off campus. At that point, I take out my cell phone and share pictures of scale models of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto at their respective locations.”
At this scale (again, with Mason's car on campus as the “sun”):
- Jupiter is across Ford Road.
- Saturn is twice as far as Jupiter on Evergreen and Paul (next to the Ever Fresh Market).
- Uranus is twice as far as Saturn on West Chicago.
- Neptune is three times as far as Saturn on I-96.
- Pluto is four times as far as Saturn, way up on Grand River Avenue.
Interplanetary distances are "just peanuts" compared to interstellar distances
“I wear my ‘solar system hat’ just so they will remember the size of Saturn's rings at this scale,” said Mason. “I show my students when we reach the edge of campus and discuss where the gas giants would be placed. And those interplanetary distances are just peanuts compared to interstellar distances. At this scale, we would have to walk all the way around the world and another thousand miles just to reach our nearest star!”