Visualizing the solar system

Solar System Diagram

The JPL SBD Browser offers a nice visualization of the positions of the planets and any user selected small body. For example, here is the page for Bennu which shows it’s current ephemeris as well as a visualization of it’s position relative to the major planets.

One drawback is that the website uses a form of Java that is no longer supported by modern browsers. As a result, I wanted to create a standalone version that actually works on my system.

Kepler and his equations

Given the orbital elements of an orbiting object at a specific epoch, we can predict it’s future and past position with relatively high accuracy. In addition, there exist well-defined analytic equations for the approximate positions of the planetary bodies. For example, Meeus

@book{meeus1991,
    Author = {Meeus, Jean H.},
    Publisher = {Willmann-Bell, Incorporated},
    Title = {Astronomical Algorithms},
    Year = {1991}}

as well as JPL present these formulae. While not accurate enough for any real application, they are ideal for visualization purposes.

Visualization

These equations have been copied into Python and provided online on Github. Now you can simply run plot_asteroid.py to visualize the position of the planets at the current time as well as any user defined small bodies. Here’s an example output of some of the current asteroids under consideration for the future Asteroid Redirect Mission.

Solar System