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Jupiter Doesn’t Actually Orbit the Sun

So you know how our solar system is just flying along, and all of our 9… er, 8… er, maybe 9? No, definitely eight.  However many there are, all of our planets orbit the sun.  That’s pretty much a given, right?  Well, not really.  See, Jupiter doesn’t actually orbit the sun itself.

The reason is Jupiter’s size.  It’s got more than twice the mass of all of the other planets in our solar system combined, and with that much weight, Jupiter actually exerts a whole lot more gravitational force itself.  Technically, none of the planets perfectly orbit the sun.  Even the smaller ones orbit a point slightly off center from the sun’s own center of gravity.  However, their orbital point is so close to the center of the sun that it’s still deep inside it, and for all practical purposes, they definitely orbit the sun – that is, until you start getting into debates about helical movement as the sun itself moves through space, etc.  That’s all just a question of your perspective in measuring the orbit though.  With the sun and all planets moving together, the planets effectively orbit the sun.  Jupiter, on the other hand, is so huge that the center of its orbit is actually *outside* the sun itself – 7% of the sun’s radius above its surface, to be exact.  What’s more, Jupiter’s mass is large enough that it actually throws the Sun itself into a small orbit around that same point.  NASA released a handy GIF to illustrate.

If you don’t quite get what’s going on, you can actually do a little experiment with a couple family members to make it more clear.  Take your 2- or 3-year-old niece or nephew, face each other, hold both their hands, and spin around each other.  Chances are, you’ll end up picking them up and just spinning in a circle with their feet flying out.  And they’ll ask you to “do it again!”  Tell them to hold on a minute, and grab a family member who’s closer to your own size.  Do the same thing – hold hands, and spin in a circle around each other.  You’ll note that instead of them just spinning around you, the two of you are actually spinning around a point someplace along your arms *between* you.  That’s basically what’s going on with the Sun and Jupiter.

So there’s you a little bit of useless space trivia to amaze your family with this Christmas when you’re all sitting around the table with no clue what to talk about.

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