A team of scientists demonstrated something back in 2019 that might shock you: Mercury, not Venus, is the closest planet to Earth on average.
The researchers presented their results back in March 2019 in an article in the magazine Physics Today. They explain that our methods of calculating which planet is â€œthe closestâ€ oversimplifies the matter. But thatâ€™s not all.
â€œFurther, Mercury is the closest neighbour, on average, to each of the other seven planets in the solar system,â€ they write. Waitâ€”what?
Our misconceptions about how close the planets are to one another comes from the way we usually estimate the distances to other planets. Normally, we calculate the average distance from the planet to the Sun. The Earthâ€™s average distance is 1 astronomical unit (AU), while Venusâ€™ is around 0.72 AU. If you subtract one from the other, you calculate the average distance from Earth to Venus as 0.28 AU, the smallest distance for any pair of planets.
But a trio of researchers realised that this isnâ€™t an accurate way to calculate the distances to planets. After all, Earth spends just as much time on the opposite side of its orbit from Venus, placing it 1.72 AU away. One must instead average the distance between every point along one planetâ€™s orbit and every point along the other planetâ€™s orbit. The researchers ran a simulation based on two assumptions: that the planetsâ€™ orbits were approximately circular, and that their orbits werenâ€™t at an angle relative to one another.
It sort of makes senseâ€”if you were getting seats to a football game, youâ€™d prefer one near the 45.72m line rather than one of the end zones in order to see the most action, even if youâ€™d occasionally be much closer to the players from the end zone. Thatâ€™s sort of whatâ€™s going on here.
Indeed, they found that Mercury was the planet closest to the Earth for the most time, on average â€” and to every other Solar System planet. Plutoâ€™s inclined and eccentric orbit does not work with their assumptions, but itâ€™s not a planet anyway, as defined by the International Astronomical Union. Please do not email me about this.
But provided there are no glaring errors in the analysis, I think itâ€™s time we say â€œbye!â€ to Venus and welcome our new closest neighbour, the best planet, Mercury.
This article was originally published on 15/3/19.