What Size Is Pluto? How Far Is Pluto? (Illustrated)

Pluto, Earth, and a few known dwarf planets. (Luna is the scientific name for the Moon)
Pluto, Earth, and a few known dwarf planets. (Luna is the scientific name for the Moon) | Source

Quick Answer

Pluto is 1,473 miles (2,370 km) in diameter, and its orbit is an average of 3.7 billion miles from the Sun.

To put Pluto size in terms we can imagine, it's a little more than half the width of mainland USA, and just a little shorter than its height. (Mainland United States is 2,680 x 1,582 miles).

Bill Nye Bikes the Solar System

Trying to Visualize the Solar System...

... is like a gnat trying to understand how far it has to fly from Los Angeles to bite someone in New York. The scale is unimaginable. From the gnat's perspective, once it crosses the Rocky Mountains, it could fly for decades before running into anything.

That's why the New Horizons Spacecraft was relatively safe flying at over 30,000 mph for over 9 years to reach Pluto, and it didn't run into anything on the way. Space is so vast, it's practically empty, with planets spread out like dust motes scattered in the void.

Not only is the solar system mindbogglingly huge, but the gaps between things keep increasing as you travel farther out. It's like a hotel lobby with one table in the middle where 4 people cluster around a big lamp, then a chair in the next city, the next state, the next country, the next hemisphere, and on the moon for the next five guests. Even with Pluto's lopsided orbit which brings it right inside the orbit of Neptune (it's just heading out again), it's still billions of miles away.

That's a distance that the human mind isn't adapted to handle. Visualizing cosmic distances didn't help our ancestors figure out a path to the next watering hole or where to put their hand to swat a gnat.

So here's some pictures I've created to show the sizes of planets our Solar System all the way out to Pluto, plus resources by NASA and others that may help if mine don't.

The Sun and Planets to Scale, Illustrated With NASA Images

Pluto and Charon compared to Earth. Side by side, they could fit inside the U.S.
Pluto and Charon compared to Earth. Side by side, they could fit inside the U.S. | Source

Above, I scoured NASA for good photos of the Sun and planets, then scaled them all using Pluto's diameter as one pixel. (However, Ceres is too big: it should be less than a pixel).

The right-hand column lists planet diameters. The left-hand column is distance from the Sun at the exact moment of New Horizon's flyby, calculated using NASA's Eyes on the Solar System app.

Planets' orbits are never perfectly circular. Since they're traveling in ellipses, their distance from the Sun varies over time. Pluto, in particular, has an extremely tilted, ellipse-shaped orbit. I could've used average distances from the Sun, but this was more fun.

What about making a map to illustrate those distances? That's tricky. Using the unit of Pluto = 1 pixel, the whole picture would be over 2 million pixels tall. So I divided distances by 200. Or, to put it differently, I multiplied the planets' sizes by 200 to make them visible.

➡ Here's my solar system map.

Just one problem: blowing up the Sun x 200 caused it to overlap Mercury and Venus. So I shoved it out of the way and placed a dot where its center should be. Using that point as "zero," the planets are spaced at the correct relative distances to the Sun and each other.

NASA's Simple Model of the Solar System

Pluto's crazy orbit compared to the rest of the planets. There's such vast spaces between the outer solar system that the inner four planets are crammed into a tiny ring (hundreds of millions of miles across) by comparison.
Pluto's crazy orbit compared to the rest of the planets. There's such vast spaces between the outer solar system that the inner four planets are crammed into a tiny ring (hundreds of millions of miles across) by comparison. | Source

Follow Light from the Sun Out to Jupiter at the Speed of Light

The Speed of Light As a Measuring Stick

Have you ever wondered why we use "light-years" as distances? That's how far light can travel in a year. Light is really, really fast, but it's not infinitely fast. It takes a tiny snatch of time to leave your phone's screen before it reaches your eye.

In human scale, that lag is too infinitesimal to matter. But across the solar system, it becomes very noticeable.

Light travels at 186,282 miles per second, or 299,792 km per second. You've seen from my map that gaps between planets are millions, or even billions of miles. Radio waves travel at the same speed as light, so sending a signal out to New Horizons actually takes hours to reach it!

The above animation pretends you're a light beam leaving the Sun. You reach the Earth in about 8 minutes, but it takes 43 minutes to reach Jupiter! (Notice the "time until next destination" box at upper right.) That's how long it takes for our Jupiter space probes to talk to us, sending back data at a few K per second at best.

Recommended: LIGHTYEAR.FM, FM Radio's simulation of signals traveling out from Earth year by year— the farther out you go, the older the music!

NASA's Eyes on the Solar System - 3D Virtual Reality App

I use this often for my articles on space, and there's a reason. You can view any part of the solar system, zoom in, scroll out, explore various missions. Be sure to click the ? Help toggle in Advanced Mode to learn keyboard navigation shortcuts.
I use this often for my articles on space, and there's a reason. You can view any part of the solar system, zoom in, scroll out, explore various missions. Be sure to click the ? Help toggle in Advanced Mode to learn keyboard navigation shortcuts. | Source

Astronomer's "Solar System to Scale" With His Own Photos

© 2015 Ellen

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5 comments

Buildreps profile image

Buildreps 17 months ago from Europe

Very interesting Hub! You did quite some research to this issue, or perhaps you know a lot about this regarding your background. Voted up!


chateaudumer profile image

chateaudumer 17 months ago from Northern California and the Philippines

I enjoyed reading this hub. Voted up!


Wednesday-Elf profile image

Wednesday-Elf 17 months ago from Savannah, Georgia

Wow, your detail is amazing.... and interesting.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 16 months ago from Essex, UK

Good visuals and videos to illustrate the scale of the Solar System Ellen. A nicely put together page.


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 13 months ago from Northeast Ohio

Ellen, this was really intriguing to know how small Pluto is and how far it is from us in the solar system. Your photos are vivid and wonderful. I'm always amazed with new findings in astronomy these days. Great hub!

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