The scale of Saturn, redux

By Phil Plait | December 27, 2011 7:00 am

A few days ago, I posted an incredible picture of Saturn taken from Cassini, showing the partially-lit planet and two of its moons. I used this picture to point out the massive scale of Saturn and its moons, something it’s easy to forget when you’re scanning all the amazing images.

BA Bloggee Matt Andrews liked the post, but thought it needed more. He took the picture from Cassini and added a map of the United States to it. I thought it was pretty cool, and so just in case you were having a hard time grasping just how frigging huge Saturn is, this ought to blow you away:

Ye. GADS. Astonishing, isn’t it? That scale looks about right to me. I know how big the US is; I’ve driven across it several times, and it’s a heckuva trip. To see it dwarfed like this is simply incredible.

So when I post these pictures and talk about how mind-boggingly ginormous these objects are, even the familiar ones, keep this in mind: I’m not kidding. Space is big.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Piece of mind
MORE ABOUT: Cassini, Saturn

Comments (31)

  1. Pete Jackson

    They left off Alaska and Hawaii. Is this another attempt to show that President Obama was not born in the USA? :-)

    Anyway, it should just be qualified as the ‘lower 48’.


    That shows how insignificant we are in the cosmic scale of things and events.

  3. Paul

    And to think, even though this picture shows the scale of america to the background of Saturn’s grand scale, there are still objects out there that dwarf Saturn. Ah, the universe. Incredible, isn’t it?

  4. Yes, space is big, really big. However, it is spread quite thinly.

    Think of the entire visible universe. Remember, the Hubble Deep Field is about the size of a grain or rice. Think of those images by Tony Tyson where the sky is essentially covered with galaxies. Since we understand nuclear matter quite well, compress it all to a ball of nuclear density (ignore gravity). How big is the ball? Answers in further comments, please.

  5. stan9fromouterspace

    ‘lower 48′ –
    CONUS to us old ex-military types, or CONtinental United States.

  6. Daniel J. Andrews

    I dunno…that’s kind of big, I guess.

    Is the U.S. superimposed on the moon or is it superimposed on Saturn itself? i.e. is that the size of the states if the earth were in place of the moon, or is that the size of the states if the earth were in place of Saturn as seen from the probe? I’m assuming the former right now because I think if it were on Saturn it would be dwarfed to a few pixels(?)

  7. Mango

    “2: That shows how insignificant we are in the cosmic scale of things and events.”

    If we’re insignificant in the cosmic scale of things, so is the milky way and so is every galaxy cluster in the universe. If everything “insignificant” disappeared from existence tomorrow there wouldn’t be anything of significance left.

  8. Lori

    Okay, I have to ask… what’s with Colorado in that map? Everything east of the mountains part of another country? 😀

  9. Ganzy

    Great mash-up Matt!

    I love stuff like this, it’s an excellent way to convey the comparative scale of objetcs known and close to us here on Earth, against objects that are so big yet so far away as to be meaningless to many people.

    It’s taken a long time for me to try and convey to my own father how big the Sun is compared to the planets in the solar system, and how big our solar system is compared to our galaxy and so on.. He is interested when I talk to him about anything related to Astronomy, but his own frame of reference is so local that I always have to find or come up with some analogy that I know will help him make the connection with what I’m trying to explain to him.

    I showed him one of the videos on Youtube from earlier this year, the animation of the scale of the planets next to the Sun, and then of the Sun to the ever increasing massive-ness and volume of bigger stars right up to VY CMa. Just groking the size of the Earth compared to the Sun blew him away. He lost the plot after Betelgeuse and had to go sit down and find comfort in a mince pie 😀

    So keep the analogies coming Phil and I’ll keep reconfiguring them and passing them on.

    Emily Lakdawalla’s comparative poster of asteroid scales was another great mash-up of which I pulled out of the tool kit to show my old man when he asked me how big an asteroid is. At first I showed him how big the Hayabusa craft was, then Hayabusa’s shadow being cast on to that ‘little’ peanut shaped rubble pile Itokawa, and then Itokawa compared to the other roids on Emily’s poster. He was blown away again.

    Surely there is a site around somewhere, where there is a comprehensive collection of images relating to conceptual analogies in many fields, not just Astronomy. Anyone have any links? I know of the site informationisbeautiful which does a great job of visualizing statistical data. I’m thinking more like the lnk Phil put up two years ago where you could see a ‘to scale’ image of a trillion dollars stacked side by side with the empire state building.


    That shows how insignificant we are in the cosmic scale of things and events.

    It really does. What amazes me even more, is that we as a species have the abilities to reach a plateau high enough to know how insignifacant we are in the scale of things and events.

  10. Ganzy

    @Daniel J. Andrews #5

    Daniel, I am assuming that the comparison is between Satrun and the States due to the title of the post. But I could understand you making the assumption with regard to comparing the States against Satruns moon Enceladus. If Matt had put the States behind Saturns rings then it might lead to less confusion in perspective?

  11. Acronym Jim

    Given the Enceladus sized crater where Colorado should be, I’m not so sure Matthew is a fan of yours, Phil.

  12. ceramicfundamentalist

    it’s all relative. maybe saturn is not really that big, it’s just that the usa is really tiny.

  13. nick k

    try taking the bus to andromeda!

  14. Lysdexic

    Looking at it another way, a relatively small number of people on a small part of that tiny country built the device that took this picture – one step towards expanding out into the universe. I find that damned impressive.

  15. Pete Jackson

    @stan9fromouterspace: The lower 48 should be called COTUS for Coterminal United States.
    Add Alaska, and you get CONUS for Continental United States, since Alaska is in the North American continent.

  16. Great work & idea there. Well done & thanks Matt Andrews. :-)

    Although it would be nicer if the continent to scale was Australia! Well for me! 😉

    Wonder if there’s a version of this with that – or with a whole lot of the continents ( Australia, Europe, both Americas, Africa, India) to scale with that image?

    The whole of planet Earth can be compared with (all of) Saturn (& its rings too) at the 30 second mark of the great cosmic size comparison clip linked to my name for this comment.

    @ 1. Pete Jackson (re-ordered for clarity & to fit, hope that’s okay ) :

    Anyway, it should just be qualified as the ‘lower 48′. They left off Alaska and Hawaii. Is this another attempt to show that President Obama was not born in the USA? 😉

    Good point but whilst I can imagine the BA doing many things joining the “birther” movement isn’t one of them! 😉

  17. devagueme

    To bad we can’t move there, polluting that atmosphere would be impossible. 😀

  18. Andrew

    Douglas Adams has already told us how big space is & I quote HHGTG “Space,” it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space, listen…”, We are a speck on a speck on a speck in a big bunch of specks amongst other big bunches of specks & so on & so forth…We Get It. Hey but as far as we know we are the only life aware of this Fact.

  19. @Daniel J. Andrews,

    My guess is the moon was used for size comparisons. In Phil’s last article, he said that the moon was 500km in circumference. In the image, it measures as 10×10 pixels. This means that 1 pixel = 50km. The circumference of the Earth is about 40,000km, so the Earth would be about 800 pixels. Here’s a photo illustrating that:

  20. Jeff Dahn

    I didn’t know that there was a black hole north of New Mexico!

  21. @18 Andrew: I always thought a somewhat better view of the vastness of the cosmos was afforded by Adams’ invention of the Total Perspective Vortex:

    The Total Perspective Vortex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses.

    To explain–since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation–every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition, and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.

    The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife.

    Trin Tragula–for that was his name–was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.

    And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.

    “Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.

    And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex–just to show her.

    And into one end, he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other, he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

    To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain, but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

  22. Daniel J. Andrews

    Thanks Ganzy, Techydad. It was the states in front of the rings that was confusing me. Techydad has a map comparison at the link he provides.

    Also, there’s this one which shows the itself compared to Saturn.

    On the BBC show Sherlock there was a scene where they were in the planetarium and the narrator mentions a dozen Earths can fit into Jupiter. I started saying, “that’s not right…”, but was hushed by the people trying to watch…not that any plot dialogue was going on…someone was trying to kill someone so lots of inept fighting, especially from a former military man (I assume their stunt coordinator was away on a trip with their science advisor though).

  23. Rich Hofacker Jr

    I’m glad someone pointed out that Alaska is part of the North American continent, in fact the continental plate continues all the way to the Irkutsk Mountains in Russia. The ‘CON’ in ‘CONUS’ could stand for the CONtiguous United States, meaning they sharing a common border; touching or are
    next or together in sequence. The Contiguous states is a correct term for the lower 48. Of course, the ‘CON’ in ‘CONUS’ could have stood for continental even if it is incorrect many people use that term…

  24. Marina

    If I’m going to drive around Saturn, I’m going to need a faster car.

  25. theMark

    @24: Wikipedia says it’s gaseous gasses over a sea of liquid gasses over some solid core, so wouldn’t you (as Roy Scheider already observed in an unrelated movie universe) “need a bigger boat?” 😉

  26. Jeffersonian

    So damn cool.

    The contig vs Saturn, baby!
    I see that the blackened part of Colorado is approx equal to the amount of land that can be seen from, say, the top of Mt Evans (a little more) ; so that provides another scale.

  27. @17. devagueme : ” Too bad we can’t move there, polluting that atmosphere would be impossible. “

    Not impossible, it’d just take a *lot* longer for any human pollution to become a significant (global -Saturnian) problem! 😉

    Of course, at its distance from our Sun you might think that Saturn could do with some greenhouse warming – but then again, it gets really hot down below the icy cloud tops with deep levels of heat and pressure inside Saturn’s superfluid mantle and core – if it still has one. (Some studies – click on my name – suggest gas giant cores may get eroded or corroded into nothingness. Applies there to Jupiter but can’t see why same wouldn’t be true here for Saturn also. From what I gather, gas giant cores are mysterious places indeed with little known for certain about them.) By “really hot”, I’d expect its millions of degrees & at pressures high enough to make hydrogen a metal. Pollute that if you can puny humans! 😉

  28. Matt B.

    I guess I’m the only one that understood that Colorado isn’t in the map. There’s a hole there to show Enceladus. Therefore, the scale of the map is meant to match the distance of Enceladus, not the distance of Saturn’s surface.

  29. If the probe is far enough away (I don’t now if it is), the enceladus-or-saturn scale problem isn’t an issue, it’s the same scale. Maybe we can just pretend that?


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