Calculate Planetary Distances

Part of the Discovering the Universe Curriculum Collection.


Students will use Google Earth and the Exploratorium calculator to create a model of the distances between the planets of our Solar System based on the scale shown along the Scales of the Universe in the Museum's Rose Center of Earth and Space. 


Students will gain an understanding of the size and scale of our Solar System.

Time Frame

45 minutes


Computer(s) to use the following website and software:

Prior Knowledge

  1. Review what students saw and recorded along the Scales of the Universe Walkway. Ask:
  • Why does the model of the Solar System in the Rose Center show the size scale but not the distances between the planets?
    (Answer: Because the scaled distances among the planets are too far to contain within the Rose Center)
  • How much space do students estimate would be necessary to show the planets scaled to this size at the proper distances?
    (Answers will vary, but should be noted for comparison to the models students will produce)


  1. Have students go to the Exploratorium Solar System calculator site and enter the size of the Hayden sphere (87 feet) as the size of the Sun. They may enter the resulting scaled sizes of each planet on their museum worksheets for reference. Have students record the proper scaled distance of each planet from the Sun/sphere.
  2. Using Google Earth software, have students place a pin at the location of the Hayden Sphere (81st street and Central Park West) and measure out the correct scaled distances to each planet, noting where each planet could be located along its orbit and choosing a placement.
  3. Students may record their results either by creating a map with all the planets integrated into it, or by creating a list of where those planets could be located in relation to the sphere.

Review and discuss the maps that the students have created. Ask:

  • Are your predictions of solar system distances correct? What surprised you the most?
    (Answers may include: How far the planets are from each other and from the Sun, or how much farther apart the outer planets are than the inner planets)
  • What size scale could you use to create a model that could be explored within walking distance of your school?
    (Answers may be similar to: With the Sun scaled to 15 inches, the scaled distance to Pluto is a little over 1 mile) Within the school itself? (Answers may be similar to: With the Sun scaled to 1 inch, the scaled distance to Pluto 354 feet) Within the classroom? (Answers may be similar to: With the Sun scaled to .1 inches, the scaled distance to Pluto is 35 feet.)

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