Physics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for active researchers, academics and students of physics. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

What calculations were done to discover the size of all the planets?

share|cite|improve this question

Planets in our own solar system are measured directly. You can measure their angular diameters with a telescope and their distance by measuring the maximum angle they make from the sun.

More recently the accurate distance to the inner planets have been measured by radar

share|cite|improve this answer
Also, of course, the Voyager missions took photographs of the Jovian planets from reasonably close range, which gives us a measurement of their size by the same method. – Jerry Schirmer Mar 13 '11 at 22:37
"maximum angle they make from the sun" - only works for Mercury and Venus, given that all the other planets can have arbitrary elongations. – Chris White Dec 26 '12 at 22:14

For exoplanets, the technique used depends on the aspect of "size" being measured.

Masses of exoplanets are estimated by using doppler spectroscopy to determine the acceleration of the planet's parent star caused by the orbiting planet, while diameters are estimated by observing the percentage of a the parent star's light that is obscured by the planet as it crosses between the star and the observer.

Masses are actually minimum masses and diameter can only be determined for planets which "transit" their parents. Both estimates require knowledge of the star's properties—for mass, stellar mass, and for diameter, stellar diameter—both of which are estimated from observation of stellar properties (spectra, known distance, etc.) and stellar evolution.

share|cite|improve this answer
The question is about size, not mass! – Georg Mar 14 '11 at 15:26
Hence the way I phrased my answer. "Size" is vague enough (especially as used in the press to describe exoplanets) that "mass" is often what's meant. So I thought I'd be helpful rather than pedantic. – raxacoricofallapatorius Mar 14 '11 at 16:38

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.