There’s an entire solar system hiding inside Sweden

Get ready for the most peculiar road trip that will help you understand the vastness and emptiness of the solar system — and Sweden.

It’s hard to miss when you walk around southern Stockholm: the giant white ball known officially as the Avicii Arena, which locals simply call Globen, or “the Globe.” With a diameter of 360 feet (110 m), an inner height of 279 feet (86 m), and a volume of 21.4 million cubic feet (605,000 cubic m), it was until very recently the largest spherical building in the world.*

Named after a beloved DJ

Inaugurated in 1989 and known until 2021 as the Ericsson Globe, it was renamed after Avicii, a beloved Swedish DJ, who died in 2018. Two external gondolas can take up to 12 passengers each to the top of the globe for a truly panoramic view of the Swedish capital.

a map of sweden with red dots on it.
A map of the Sweden Solar System, but without the latest addition (Varda and Ilmarë in Uddevalla). (Credit: Sweden Solar System).

The venue is used mainly for ice hockey games, concerts, and other mass events, including the Eurovision Song Contest (twice, once in 2000 and again in 2016). In 2018, Metallica drew a record crowd of 17,303 fans to the Globe.

There is another thing that is unique about the Avicii Arena, one that is not immediately obvious even from its size: It is the center of the world’s largest scale model of our solar system. In other words, the Globe is the sun, and distributed throughout Stockholm, its suburbs, and further parts of Sweden, there are models of the planets, comets, and other heavenly bodies that are our closest neighbors in our little corner of the universe, all on a scale of 1:20 million.

Uma Thurman’s grandma in the nude

The Sweden Solar System — probably also the world’s largest scale model per se — makes full use of the country’s vastness. If there is one thing Sweden has plenty of, it is space. At 172,752 square mi (447,425 sq km), it is Europe’s fifth-largest country (after Russia, Ukraine, France, and Spain). Due to its peculiarly elongated shape, Sweden’s southernmost point is closer to Rome (930 mi, or 1,500 km) than to its northernmost point (975 mi, or 1,568 km).

At that southernmost point, in Smygehuk, you’ll find a bronze statue of Uma Thurman’s grandmother in the nude. But that’s another story.

a statue of a hand with a blue ball in it.
Since 2005, Teknikens Hus in Luleå — “Sweden’s northernmost science center” — features a scale model of dwarf planet Sedna, as part of the Sweden Solar System. (Credit: Dag Lindgren, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Outside the Institute of Space Physics in Kiruna, an Arctic mining town and Sweden’s answer to Cape Canaveral, 590 mi (950 km) north of the Globe, a plaque represents the termination shock at the outer edge of the heliosphere, an oft-used marker for the border of our solar system. The plaque was dedicated in 2004, when Voyager 1 had passed the termination shock.

A more impressive sculpture is planned to mark the termination shock at Kiruna. It will make a better terminus for a peculiar kind of road trip: one that will help you understand the vastness and emptiness of both the solar system and of Sweden. It would also illustrate the relative smallness of even the sun within our solar system, not to mention the planets and other celestial objects, models of which are positioned at appropriate distances and in appropriate sizes between Stockholm and Kiruna.

Planets with Stockholm addresses

Models of comets, dwarf planets, and other more eccentric members of the solar system family are generally located south of Stockholm. Not to complicate our road trip too much, we will concentrate on points north, going past all the main planets. And it starts simple enough: the first few ones all have Stockholm addresses.

a blue globe on a pedestal.
Earth, in Stockholm, on Earth — more precisely in Cosmonova, the cinema theatre of Sweden’s National Museum of Natural History. (Credit: Joongi Kim, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The planet Mercury is placed 1.8 mi (2.9 km) from the Globe, just outside Stockholm City Museum and is no more than 9.8 in (25 cm) in diameter. For Venus, go to Vetenskapens Hus (House of Science) at the Royal Institute of Technology. This sphere is 24 in (62 cm) in diameter, and is located 3.4 mi (5.5 km) from the Globe.

Earth is at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, 4.7 mi (7.6 km) from the Globe. It’s a sphere 26 in (65 cm) in diameter. The museum also houses a model to scale of the Moon (7.1 in, 18 cm). Mars (14 in, 35 cm) is on the upper level of Mörby Centrum, a shopping center and metro station in the Stockholm suburb of Danderyd, at 7.2 mi (11.6 km) from the Globe.

three pictures of sculptures in front of a building.
Left to right: Mercury, Venus, and Mars, all in or near Stockholm. (Credit: Joongi Kim, CC BY-SA 2.0; and Vincnetas, CC BY-SA 3.0)

There is a big gap between the small solid planets on the inside of the solar system and the first of the gas giants — both in the heavens and in Sweden. Jupiter is represented by a light ring 24 ft (7.3 m) in diameter inside the Clarion Hotel at Stockholm Arlanda Airport, 25 mi (40 km) from the Globe.

Missing in action: Saturn

In 2009, Saturn was represented by a flower carpet with a diameter of 20 ft (6.1 m) on Celsius Square, outside the old observatory of Anders Celsius (yes, he of temperature fame) in the center of Uppsala, 45 mi (73 km) from the Globe. The idea was to build a dome over the planetarium of a local school as a more permanent representation of Saturn, but the funding fell through. As of today, it is the only planet not represented in the Sweden Solar System. There are still plans to build a Saturn in Uppsala, and local schools have already created models of some of the moons.

a sculpture of a bird in the snow.
Artwork in Saltsjöbaden depicting Asteroid 36614, a.k.a. Saltis, discovered by the Stockholm Observatory nearby. (Credit: Bengt Oberger, CC BY-SA 3.0)

A first likeness of Uranus was vandalized, so a second one (8 ft 6 in, 2.6 m) was installed in 2012 near Stora Magasinet in Lövstabruk, 77 mi (124 km) from the Globe. In keeping with the nautical inclination of the planet’s titular deity, Neptune (8 ft 2 in, 2.5 m) is in the coastal town of Söderhamn. This three-ton acrylic Neptune is 142 mi (229 km) from the Globe, and is illuminated at night from the inside.

Plutinos and other Trans-Neptunian objects

A “Trans-Neptunian object” rather than a planet these days, Pluto (4.7 in, 12 cm) and its largest moon Charon are nevertheless included in the Sweden Solar System. Find them in a park near the center of Delsbo, 190 mi (300 km) from the Globe. Further beyond Neptune (and further north) are Ixion (2.6 in, 6.5 cm), a so-called “plutino,” in Härnösand, 224 miles (360 km) from the Globe; Eris (5.1 in, 13 cm), in Umeå, 320 mi (510 km) from the Globe; and Sedna (3.9 in, 10 cm), in Luleå, 567 mi (912 km) from the Globe.

From there, it’s still a four-hour drive through the vast wilderness of Swedish Lapland until you reach Kiruna at the outer edge of the Sweden Solar System.

a red and blue sculpture in a grassy field.
Uranus version two, post-vandalization. (Credit: Greger Ravik, CC BY-SA 2.0)

If that’s a bit too much road-tripping for you, stick to southern Sweden, where you can pick from a variety of scale models strewn across the land, including Asteroid 36614 “Saltis,” at a school in Saltsjöbaden, near the Stockholm Observatory where it was discovered in 2000. It was named Saltis, after the observatory’s nickname.

An alien object in Plönninge

Asteroid 433 “Eros” was inaugurated at Mörbyskolan in Danderyd on Saint Valentine’s Day 2000, the same day a space probe entered orbit around the asteroid. The model, only 2 mm wide, is made of pure gold. The comet Swift-Tuttle at the Kreativum science center in Karlshamn is 240 mi (386 km) from the Globe, representing the furthest distance the comet gets from the sun. At its closest, it would need to be in central Stockholm. You can find Halley’s Comet in Skövde, the comet Makemake in Gothenburg, and the allegedly “alien” object ‘Oumuamua in Plönninge.

a plaque on a wall.
An old relief map of the Sweden Solar System. Like the universe itself, it is still expanding. (Credit: Einar Spetz, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The concept for the Sweden Solar System was born in the late 1990s, when a professor cycling past Globen wondered how big and how far the planets would need to be if it represented the sun. Originally conceived as the Stockholm Solar System with planets no further than Jupiter, the idea was soon taken up by schools, science institutions, and other organizations further afield.

The Sweden Solar System currently consists of more than 60 objects distributed across 26 locations in Sweden. The latest to be added are the dwarf planet Varda and its moon Ilmarë in Uddevalla in September 2021. Plans to add more scale models of dwarf planets, comets, and asteroids are in the works.

For more on the Sweden Solar System, visit its website.

Strange Maps #1214

Got a strange map? Let me know at [email protected].

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*Note: Since its completion on July 4, 2023, the Sphere at the Venetian in Las Vegas holds the title of the world’s largest spherical building, with a diameter of 515 ft (157 m). Many thanks to reader Theuns Dirkse van Schalkwyk for pointing this out. However, it must be said that the Avicii Arena represents a larger part of a complete sphere (77.2%) than the new kid on the Strip (71.3%). The Stockholm globe remains a lot bigger than the third-largest spherical building in the world, the Kazakhstan Science Museum (262 ft, 80 m) in Astana.

This article was reprinted with permission of Big Think, where it was originally published.

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