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Mercury, Not Venus, Is the Closest Planet to Earth



An image of the surface of Mercury.
Image: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Carnegie Institution of Washington (Wikimedia Commons)

A team of scientists has just demonstrated something that could shock you: Mercury, not Venus, is the planet closest to Earth on average.

The researchers presented their findings this week in an article in the journal Physics Today. They explain that our methods of calculating which planet is "the closest" oversimplify the question. But that is not all.

"Furthermore, Mercury is the closest neighbor, on average, to each of the other seven planets in the solar system," they write. Wait-what?

Our misunderstandings about how close the two planets are to each other come from the way we usually estimate distances to other planets. Normally, we calculate the average distance from the planet to the sun. The average distance of the Earth is 1 astronomical unit (AU), while Venus is about 0.72 AU. If you subtract one from the other, calculate the average distance from Earth to Venus as 0.28 AU, the minimum distance for any pair of planets.

But a trio of researchers has realized that this is not an accurate way to calculate the distances from the planets. After all, the Earth spends so much time on the opposite side of its orbit from Venus, placing it at 1.72 AU away. Instead, the distance between each point along the orbit of one planet and each point along the orbit of the other planet must be mediated. The researchers performed a simulation based on two assumptions: that the orbits of the planets were approximately circular and that their orbits were not in one corner compared to the other.

GIF: Tom Stockman / Gabriel Monroe / Samuel Cordner

It's a bit logical: if you like places for a soccer game, you'd prefer one near the 50-yard line rather than one of the ends zones to see the greatest number of actions, although from time to time you should be much closer to the players from the final zone. Here's what happens here.

In fact, they discovered that Mercury was the planet closest to Earth most of the time, on average and in every other planet in the Solar System. Pluto's inclined and eccentric orbit does not work with their assumptions, but it is not a planet, as defined by the International Astronomical Union. Please don't send me an email about it.

You can read the mathematical core of Physics Today or look at an explanation of mathematics on YouTube.

But as long as there are no obvious errors in the analysis, I think it is time to say "hello!" To Venus and welcome our new nearest neighbor, the best planet, Mercury.


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