Let's Talk About: Distance scale of the solar system

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Our solar system formed about 4.5 billion years ago from a collapsing cloud of gas and dust. It boggles the mind to try to picture how big that nebula really was. There's a lot of empty space out there, and the sizes of the planets vary greatly, as do the distances between the planets and the sun. Making a scale distance model of the solar system is a good way to visualize how vast our solar system and space really is.

An accurate way to build our scale distance model is to shrink the solar system down to the size of a football field, with the sun on our goal line. Two yards on our football field will be equal to the distance between Earth and the sun, 93 million miles, or astronomical unit (AU).

Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, orbits about 35 million miles away. It would lie just less than a yard (0.8 yards) from our goal line. Venus is next, at 67 million miles from the sun. It is 1.4 yards from the goal line. Earth sits on the 2-yard line, at 93 million miles, or 1 AU from the sun. Mars is on the 3-yard line, at about 142 million miles, or 1.5 AU from the end zone.

Jupiter is on the 10.5-yard line. Its average distance from the sun is 484 million miles, or 5.2 AU. Saturn at 887 million miles from the sun, or 9.5 AU, sits on the 19-yard line. Uranus lies on the 38-yard line at 1.7 billion miles, or 19 AU from the sun. Neptune, at 2.8 billion miles, or 30 AU, crosses midfield and sits on the opponent's 40-yard line. The dwarf planet Pluto, orbiting about 3.7 billion miles or 39.5 AU from the sun, is now a threat to score. It sits on our opponent's 21-yard line.

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