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Orrery Design: Overview
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Orrery Design: Overview

Jan 10, 2020Category : CodingWebMobile
Orrery Design: Overview

An orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system that shows the relative positions and motions of the planets and moons according to the heliocentric (sun-centered) model. Having the ability to tune it to a specific date, I hope to provide a celestial perspective of what that day looks like, and augment our understanding of time.

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Time in Context

I am interested in exploring, through this thesis project, how time can be presented in an unfamiliar display that can become an association of a memory or an anticipated event in the future. I am building an orrery (model solar system) that relies on data gathered though astrometry to allow viewers to see what the solar system looked like on a given day.

A Million Times at Changi

A Million Times at Changi

I am interested in how contextual time is precious to the individual. In terms of memories, all the information that our five senses experienced becomes the substance of context within that memory. For better or worse, these memories influence many aspects of our lives, even sometimes unknowingly. 

In their artist statement for the “A Million Times at Changi” installation, Bischoff, Bastian, and Per Emanuelsson, elaborate on the crippling reality of how dependent on time we are. the question that shadowed them throughout their studies was, ‘“How time designs and how to design time?”‘ Certainly, there are different contexts of time that fill our lives and we deem more important than others such as, food delivery ETAs, work and class due dates; appointments and meetings; pregnancy; and even the fated end of life. Their work shares a similar goal that I aim to contribute to – how to design time. 


Flyte’s product, 'STORY’, touches on the more contextual aspect of time that I am exploring. STORY is a modern wall clock that without hands. It has an LED display for the current time and a metal ball that moves around the clock face in the duration of a ‘journey’. A ‘journey’ is illustrated as a complete clockwise rotation of the ball around the clock face from position 12 to 12 again. Among other things, the journey’s duration is completely customizable. 


Orrery at Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre

The Orrery at Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre boasts the precision that I strive to replicate in my prototype. It uses a single planetary gear motor that drives a system of 52 gears in tandem to synchronize the orbit of the planets. Similar to all mechanically driven orreries, the passage of time is expressed in the beauty of orbital harmony. What I hope to achieve with my prototype is not only this, but also the beauty of this harmony for a specified moment in time.

To fulfill what I see as my role in exploring the design of contextual time, 

the orrery will have several features that separate it from traditional mechanical orreries.  

What makes my prototype different?

  • Independent Orbits - I will not be using a single system of gears in tandem for the entire installation. Each planet will operate move independently of each other.
  • Toggled Behaviour - There will be two modes available: the demo Mode, which will behave like a regular mechanical orrery; and  the Epoch Mode, which will allow users to enter a date causing the installation to move the planets into their position based on the date.
  • Symbols not Spheres - Instead of using spheres, I would like to explore a more artistic approach with astronomical symbols which represent the planets.
  • Future-Proof - The use of VSOP to calculate positions of planets affords my project a level of precision that stands the test of time (pun intended).  Unlike mechanical orreries, that only replicate orbital synchronization, my project has the data required to replicate true orbits along 3 dimensions. In this current iteration of my prototype, I am not utilizing all of this data, but with time and resources it can be achieved.

Process & Development

The Iterative Design Process has enabled me to make incremental progress on my thesis project. 
Many parts have been involved in creating the orrery, that i have summarized below, and can be explored in greater detail in the links below.

Annotated Bibliography

Bischoff, Bastian, and Per Emanuelsson. “Designing Time.” Humans since 1982, Humans since 1982, 2018,

        A Million Times is a series of works that began as a typeface using the hands and face of a clock. According to, Humans, the ethos behind it was to “design time”. The work consists of numerous mechanical clocks that are programmed to move in various synchronous and asynchronous ways. Many iterations have been created with the most known so far being the installation in the Singapore Changi Airport in Terminal 2. This installation is their largest yet, sporting 504 clock-faces, each playing a role in the larger display. This artwork has also been very inspirational to my project in showing how the mechanics and programming come together in creating a larger display. 

Bretagnon, P, and G Francou. “Planetary Theories in Rectangular and Spherical Variables. VSOP87 Solutions.” Astronomy and Astrophysics, vol. 102, no. 1-2, Aug. 1988, pp. 309–315.,

       There are several iterations of the VSOP theories. These are solutions for the motion of the eight planets in the solar system.  These methods are used in the field of astrometry and vary in levels of accuracy over spans of time. For example, VSOP87 can be used to accurately calculate the positions of planets for up to several thousands of years before and after the year 2000. My project will use VSOP87 in its calculations made available by an open source library called Astronomy Engine (Cross).  The authors, Bretagnon and Francou explain on page 309 that, “VSOP87 is an algorithm used to calculate celestial objects using rectangular and elliptical coordinates”. These points of reference exist across multiple tables that are used in its algorithm to calculate the most accurate 3D position possible in relation to a specific time.  In other words, the input is the date (month, day, and year).  The output is an (X, Y, Z) position, which are the rectangular coordinates, and the radial distance from the sun, the polar angle, and the azimuthal angle, which are the spherical coordinates and are all in relation to the sun.  These spherical coordinates are shown in the picture to the left.  Theta (θ) represents the polar angle (tilt on the z axis).  The variable r represents radial distance and phi (𝛗) represents the azimuthal angle (rotation on the XY plane) The solution includes five deriving solutions that are used to maximize precision. 

Cross, Don. Astronomy Engine cosinekitty. astronomy, commit 4eed90fd42206328980aa58d40cdabdfe7f4c05e, Don Cross, Aug 16 2016. GitHub, (Links to an external site.) 

        Don Cross, AKA “cosinekitty” created the “AstronomyEngine”, which is an open source library used to calculate the positions of celestial bodies and predict the dates of celestial events such as lunar phases, sun rise and set times. This library uses VSOP87 which is one of the earlier iterations of the analytical planetary theory Variations Séculaires des Orbites Planétaires (VSOP). I use this library to retrieve planetary information based on a date input by the user into the mobile app. Although I have come to learn and understand how to retrieve data using the open source ephemerides that are available, it would require me to create a retrieval library similar to what has already been created by Cross. This has allowed me to  focus on building the structure and companion app for my installation. 

Flyte. “STORY - Set Time Free.” Flyte,

        The Story is a modernistic clock that features a magnetically levitating sphere, backlit LEDs, and a companion app. Unlike a conventional clock, the Story has no minute or hour hands, but it does have afront-facing LED time display. The sphere is used to illustrate a “journey "around the clock face. The duration of this journey is completely customizable and can denote any duration that the user sets using the companion app. This product is an artistic and functional timepiece that has inspired me to think outside the confines of how time can be illustrated. With this product, the journey of the sphere around the face has become contextual only to the user and others who've been made aware of it. This timepiece is relevant to my project because it is a successful example of building an artistic product that has a companion-app that allows for a personalized experience of time in context. 

Moisson, X. “Solar System Planetary Motion to Third Order of the Masses.” Astronomy and Astrophysics, vol. 341, 1999, pp. 318–327.,

       Moisson’s paper presents the VSOP2000 theory which builds upon its predecessors, VSOP82 and VSOP 87. In detail, Moisson outlines how this iteration of the theory uses collected data to incorporate the minor deviations during the planets’ orbits due to the gravitational attraction of neighbouring celestial objects such as asteroids, comets, and neighbouring planets. He also compares the calculations of previous theory VSOP82 with collected data DE403 that this updated theory is incorporating. This not only validates the solution, but allows Moisson to measure the improvement of accuracy. This accuracy is very important to me. With rectangular and spherical coordinates being determined based on a specific time, I can position the planets in a configuration that replicates the solution results. This would mean that my configurations can then be verified for accuracy by testing it against NASA’s Eyes Program. This interactive sculpture is not only meant to be artistic, but also accurate. 

O'Brien, Tim. “Giant Clockwork Solar System Arrives at Jodrell Bank.” Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics News, University of Manchester, 25 Mar. 2013, 10:29,  

        The Orrery at the Jordell Bank Discovery Centre is one of the few successfully suspended mechanical orreries. Measuring at 5m (16 ft.) in diameter it is also amongst the biggest in the world. According to Teresa Anderson, Director of the Discovery Centre, this installation took over two years in planning and development and boasts a system of 52 gears used to precisely align the movement of planets. This installation is a beautiful example of precise engineering, which I hope to incorporate into my prototype. My prototype will not rely on a large amount of gears to replicate the accuracy of position and movement, but will, rely on technology to determine the position. 

Simon, J.-L., et al. “New Analytical Planetary Theories VSOP2013 and TOP2013.” Astronomy & Astrophysics, vol. 557, 2013, doi:10.1051/0004-6361/201321843. 

        In this article, Simon, et al, account the improvements they have made upon the analytical planetary theories: the Variations Séculaires des Orbites Planétaires(VSOP) and the Theory of the Outer Planets (TOP).  The authors go into detail explaining how the VSOP2010, VSOP2013, and TOP theories are built upon the algorithms and derivations used in previous theories and how they have been able to improve the accuracy of the 2D and 3D coordinates of the planets locations in relation to time by factoring in additional data gathered through observation and analytical computing of other celestial bodies disturb the planetary orbits. Although the computed results of these algorithms are publicly available, they’re somewhat large (2.5GB) and would take more time than I have available to implement into the software I use for my thesis project. This paper and the data made available through it, are critical verifying the theoretical accuracy of the planets that are in my model solar system. As my prototype will only include the four most inner planets, only VSOP is currently relevant to my project.

Staugaitis, Laura. “Sunlight Casts Shadows of Phrases Exploring Theories of Time in a Street Art Installation by DAKU.” Sunlight Casts Shadows of Phrases Exploring Theories of Time in a Street Art Installation by DAKU, Colossal, 3 June 2019,

        The artist, Daku created a street artwork called, 'Theory of Time', which uses the sunlight and its changing direction over time to cast shadows of text along the street throughout the day. What makes this artwork inspiring to me and the theory of my project is it's use of sunlight, which is a cyclical affect of heliocentric time to superimpose theories of time along the street floor. Phrases such as "Time is fleeting" or "Time moves."

© Jerez Bain 2020 / All rights reserved.
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