Closest planet to Earth, its Mercury, not Venus; say scientists

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Representational Image
Representational Image

New Delhi : A very common general knowledge question ' What is the closest planet to Earth?' gets a new twist. While most of us may consider Venus as the answer but, actually, it may be Mercury.

Though we know that Venus is the planet that comes closest to Earth as it rotates on its orbit, Mercury stays the closest to Earth the longest, according to a study published lately in the magazine Physics Today.

"By some phenomenon of carelessness, ambiguity, or groupthink, science popularizers have disseminated information based on a flawed assumption about the average distance between planets," Tom Stockman, a Ph.D. student at the University of Alabama; Gabriel Monroe, a mechanical engineer at the U.S. Army's Engineer Research and Development Center; and Samuel Cordner, a mechanical engineer at NASA wrote in the commentary. 

When we calculate the distance between two planets, we usually subtract the two planets' average distances from the sun. But the fact is that we only calculate the distance between two planets when they're closest to each other. 

At some time Venus is all the way on the opposite side of the Sun because the two planets move at different speeds.

In the study, the researchers devised a new mathematical technique, called the point-circle method, to measure the distances between planets. This method averages the distance between many points on each planet's orbit, thereby taking time into consideration.

When measured that way, Mercury was closest to Earth most of the time. Not only that, but Mercury was also the closest planet to Saturn, and Neptune, and all of the other planets. The researchers checked their findings by mapping out where the planets were in their orbits every 24 hours for 10,000 years.

However, not all the scientists agree with this new definition of "closest" planet.

"Suppose you live in a house where the people who live next door to you spend half the year someplace, maybe you live in Wisconsin and your nearest neighbours spend seven months of the long winters in Florida," said Steven Beckwith, the director of the Space Science Laboratory and professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley, who was not part of the commentary. "During the winter, the people in the next house over would be closer to you."