Solar System (#227)


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Solar System (#227)

Kaltxì Rubyists,

This week’s quiz is to create a solar system simulator. It will a date
as input then return a list of the distances to each planet from Earth
at that date.

Have fun!

Daniel M. wrote:

Solar System (#227)

This week’s quiz is to create a solar system simulator. It will a date
as input then return a list of the distances to each planet from Earth
at that date.

Not a whole lot of Ruby-specific stuff here, FWIW.

Lovely maths! I found the Horizons web site too - I was hoping to
implement an application to extract the necessary data via net::telnet
library but couldn’t see how to get the data I needed! - there’s an
awful lot of it!

Daniel X Moore wrote:

Solar System (#227)

Kaltx� Rubyists,

This week’s quiz is to create a solar system simulator. It will a date
as input then return a list of the distances to each planet from Earth
at that date.

Have fun!

Is anyone doing anything with this? I’m quite curious to see some
solutions, and I’m definitely not clever enough yet to come up with

There were two solutions for this quiz, a mathematical computation
approach, and a web services based approach.

Glen F. Pankow used a mathematical approach from the NASA Horizons
site as described in Formulae for Computing Approximate Planetary
Positions ( Glen’s
program makes use of a table of data containing the Keplerian elements
(Orbital elements - Wikipedia) of
each planetary body. Then when given the date in question as input,
the numbers are crunched to produce the x, y, and z positions of each
planetary body at that point in time. The final step is to compute the
distance from the position of the Earth to each of those positions and
display the results.

The mathematical formulas involved in computing the positions can be
daunting, so a tip of the hat to Glen for writing them up with good
comments in a step by step solution. Glen’s solution is certainly
worth taking a look at if you are interested in the mathematics of
planetary motion.

Jean L. provided a web-services based solution that queried the
NASA Horizons system directly as well as a summary of the solution.

The following section of the summary is written by Jean L…

After asking a friend, who pointed me to the NASA horizons system site
which provides solar system data, I realised that a simple solution
would be to use the web version of the NASA’s site
( tool to retrieve the distances.

Understanding a site…

After playing a little bit with horizons I was able to use it to
retrieve interactively the distance from earth to any planet of our
solar system at a given date.

The user sets an amount of parameters first that define some query and
then he/she asks for the result.

Horizons seems to store in a HTTP session the parameters that define
what data we want to retrieve. It has several group of parameters like
the result format, the target planet, the origin planet, etc. Each
group may contain several parameters. Because we can query only one
planet at a time, we must submit eight queries to retrieve all the

To implement the solution we must find how our program can communicate
with the server. Using a Firefox addon, HttpFox for instance, we can
analyse the underlyingHTTP data. We record all the necessary postings,
then we locate the values we need to change (the date and the
planets). To retrieve the results we need, our program parse the
response returned by the server. As Horizons can return simple text,
parsing the result is easier.

The horizons web application expects post requests using form-data as
multipart format. Because the standard HTTP layer in Ruby does not
support multipart data transfer, we are going to add a simple support
for it.

Multipart form-data

Before presenting how we can add multipart support, let us first see
one way of using the HTTP library (using Ruby 1.8).

Posting data with Ruby’s HTTP library

Next snippet is a quick overview of a post request using the HTTP

01 require ‘net/http’
03 server = ‘’
04 port = ‘8080’
06 http =, port)
08 path = ‘/submit’
09 content = ‘name=me’
10 headers = {'‘Content-Type’ => ‘application/x-www-form-urlencoded’}
12 response, body =, content, headers)
At line 6 we create an HTTP object. At line 12 we send a POST request
with one parameter.

We could write the same code using other APIs from the HTTP library,
we wrote it this way as a base for what follows.

Extending the default library

We are not going to extend the classes used by the HTTP library, but
specifically add the multipart support to the objects we create. We
define a kind of factory method named create_http_with_multipart.

01 require ‘net/http’
03 def create_http_with_multipart server, port = nil
05 http =, port)
07 def http.post_multipart path, parameters, headers = {}
08 end
10 http
12 end
Line 10 returns a normal HTTP object with one more method named
post_multipartadded to the new HTTP object at line 7.

The post_multipart method expects the server path for the request, a
hash object with the parameters and a hash object with the optional
header parameters. (It does not support files as parameters.)

01 def http.post_multipart path, parameters, headers = {}
03 boundary = ‘xxboundaryxx’
05 data = []
07 parameters.each do |name, value|
08 data << “–#{boundary}”
09 data << “Content-Disposition: form-data; name="#{name}"”
10 data << ‘’
11 data << value.to_s
12 end
14 data << “–#{boundary}”
15 data << ‘’
17 body = data.join(“\r\n”)
19 headers[‘Content-Type’] = “multipart/form-data;
20 headers[‘Content-Length’] = body.length.to_s
22 return post(path, body, headers)
24 end
The implementation loops through all the parameters (line 7) filling
an array (data) and adding each time a new part (starting with the
boundary sequence – line 8). It adds a last boundary after the loop,
before converting the array to a string (lines ended with carriage
return / line feed – line 17).

Then it adds the necessary headers, notice the one setting the content
type with the boundary string (line 19).

And finally it calls the inherited post method (line 22).

Back to distance…

We hide the complexity of the horizons site communication in the
Horizons class. It initializes the parameters in the server’s session,
stores the necessary cookie, makes the eight requests and parses the
result. Parsing the result is very simple as the horizons encloses the
data table between two lines containing $$SOE and $$EOE.

The main script uses the Horizons class and loops waiting for user to
input dates.


The result is rather slow (mainly because we need to make eight

We didn’t really solve the problem. But we didn’t reinvent the wheel,
was it possible? :wink:

Here is a run result, so that you can check the planet positions on
the 2nd of May (distances may seem short but they are expressed in AU
– astronomical unit).

$ ruby solar.rb
Enter a date or nothing to quit
Date (YYYY-MM-DD): 2010-05-02
JUPITER: 5.60264666760831 AU
VENUS: 1.45723642739716 AU
SATURN: 8.75025556531919 AU
MERCURY: 0.56158052050790 AU
URANUS: 20.8265012641112 AU
PLUTO: 31.2222615921462 AU
MARS: 1.29568386653263 AU
NEPTUNE: 30.2996308594089 AU

(1 AU = 149,597,870.691 km)
Date (YYYY-MM-DD):

Solar System (#227) - Solutions