Brilliant Planetary Visualizations Will Rock Your World

Visualizing our solar system is one of those third-eye treats that never grows old. The Sun and its gravitationally bound planets, asteroids, etc. are in constant relative motion, and thinking about all of the different bodies swinging around each other (planets around the Sun, moons around the planets) conjures in the mind a seemingly endless dance against a backdrop of starry space. Speaking of which, Japan-based planetary scientist, Dr. James O’Donoghue, made some incredible planetary visualizations recently, which not only help people understand the way planets move, but may also inspire them to reimagine the solar system in a whole new way.

Dr. O’Donoghue, a former NASA fellow who’s now at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), seems to have spent his entire career studying planetary science, which means you don’t have to take these visualizations with a grain of salt, although playing some Beethoven in the background while watching them is recommended. Above and below are three tweets from Dr. O’Donoghue, which illustrate, from top tweet to bottom: the planets’ rotation periods relative to one and other; the planets’ relative rotation periods, plus their respective tilts relative to their shared orbital plane; and finally, the relative velocities of Earth to the Sun, the Sun to the Milky Way, and the Milky Way to the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR).

In the first tweet, Dr. O’Donoghue shows the relative motion of the planets by dividing them into slices of ribbon and then reforming the ribbons as a sphere. By stacking the planets—Pluto, you ain’t included here, but you’re still great—we get a sense of how quickly they move in comparison to each other. Jupiter, which takes up the largest, middle ribbon, rotates 2.4 times faster than Earth does, which is why it looks particularly speedy. The longest rotation period: Venus, with a whopping 243-day-long rotation period. Note that Uranus and Venus are moving backwards because they appear to rotate counter-clockwise.

The second tweet, immediately above, shows not only how quickly the planets, as well as two dwarf planets—welcome back, Pluto!—rotate relative to each other, but also their tilts relative to their shared orbital plane. ( The orbital plane of a revolving body is the geometric plane in which its orbit lies.) Dr. Donoghue notes that you can find the tilts for each planet by using the right-hand rule: In order to do this, make a fist with your right hand, but stick your thumb out. When you hold your hand up to, say, Jupiter, your fingers curl in the same direction as the planet’s rotation and your thumb points toward the north pole; when you hold your fist up to Uranus to match the curl of your fingers with that planet’s spin, your thumb, and hence north pole, become perpendicular to that of Jupiter’s north pole.

Finally, there’s the third tweet, which shows the relative velocities of Earth’s orbit to its orbit around the Sun; Earth’s orbit around the Sun to the Sun’s orbit around the Milky Way; the Milky Way’s velocity through the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation relative to the Sun’s orbit around the Milky Way. (The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation is the faint background radiation left over as a remnant of the Big Bang.)

What do you think of these planetary visualizations? Do they make you totally rethink the way you see the solar system and all of its cosmic dancing, or is this all old news for you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Feature image: Dr James O’Donoghue

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