Apparently even NASA is wrong about which planet is closest to Earth

Three scientists publish a paper proving that Mercury, not Venus, is the closest planet to Earth.

  • Earth is the third planet from the Sun, so our closest neighbor must be planet two or four, right?
  • Wrong! Neither Venus nor Mars is the right answer.
  • Three scientists ran the numbers. In this YouTube video, one of them explains why our nearest neighbor is... Mercury!

Did Musk pick the wrong planet to die on?

Image: upload.wikimedia.org

Elon Musk has said he wants to die on Mars.

By 2024, Elon Musk wants to land humans on Mars – the billionaire entrepreneur has said that he himself wants to go to the Red Planet, and even wants to die there (just not on impact, he quips). But has SpaceX chosen the wrong planet to colonize? If the plan was to pick the closest planet: yes indeed.

While Mars looms large in human culture and imagination, most scientific sources refer to Venus as the planet that's the shortest distance away from Earth. NASA mentions Venus as our closest neighbor. But while it's true that no other planet comes closer – the shortest approach is 0.28 AU (1) or 25 million miles (41 million km) – it's not true that Venus is the closest planet (2) on average (even though that too is often erroneously asserted).

A faulty line-up of the solar system 

Image: Wikipedia

A line-up of the usual suspects. Only the sizes are to scale, not the distances. And they usually don't line up as nicely as this.

"As it turns out, by some phenomenon of carelessness, ambiguity or groupthink, science popularizers have disseminated information based on a flawed assumption about the average distance between planets," write Tom Stockman, Gabriel Monroe and Samuel Cordner in an article published by Physics Today.

They go on to explain the mathematical method they devised to prove that, when averaged over time, it is in fact Mercury – the first rock from the Sun – that is Earth's nearest neighbor.

Long story short: Mercury is closest to Earth on average because it orbits the Sun more closely. That also means – mind-blowingly – that Mercury is the closest neighbor of all planets in our solar system, including gas giants Jupiter and Saturn and snowball planets Neptune and Uranus on the freezing outer edges of the system.

Unbelievably cool or unbelievably obvious?

Image: Tomment Section

Simulation of Mercury (grey), Venus (orange), Earth (blue) and Mars (red) circling the Sun, and the calculation of average distances to Earth.

In Physics Today, the three scientists describe their method in great detail. For laypeople like (probably) you and (certainly) me, the YouTube video at the top of this post, narrated by Mr Stockman, is more illuminating. In 6 minutes 40 seconds, he had me convinced.

While some commenters agree ("a neat new way to think about it!"), one or two are irritated that the hoi polloi are only now clocking on to this ("Any idiot should have been able to point this out").

Either way, one has to feel for the one commenter who seems to have figured this out a long time ago, but didn't have this video to prove their point: "I told my school teacher many years ago that Mercury is nearest to Earth but they laughed at me."

Video found here on YouTube. If you like your math like Saturn likes its gravity (spoiler: heavy), here's the article in Physics Today.

Strange Maps #966

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.


(1) 1 Astronomical Unit (AU) is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun: 93 million miles (150 million km).

(2) Their name aptly derived from the Greek 'planetai' for "wanderers", planets orbit around the Sun, hence the immense variation in the distances between them.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Beyond Meat announces plan to sell ‘ground beef’ in stores. Shares skyrocket.

Beyond Beef sizzles and marbleizes just like real beef, Beyond Meat says.

Culture & Religion
  • Shares of Beyond Meat opened at around $200 on Tuesday morning, falling to nearly $170 by the afternoon.
  • Wall Street analysts remain wary of the stock, which has been on a massive hot streak since its IPO in May.
  • Beyond Meat faces competition from Impossible Foods and, as of this week, Tyson.
Keep reading Show less

7 most valuable college majors for the future

The most valuable college majors will prepare students for a world right out a science fiction novel.

Harvard University
Technology & Innovation
  • The future of work is going to require a range of skills learned that take into account cutting edge advancements in technology and science.
  • The most valuable college majors in the future will prepare students for new economies and areas of commerce.
  • Mathematics, engineering and science related educational majors will become an ubiqitous feature of the new job market.
Keep reading Show less

Here are the U.S. states with the highest prevalence of psychopaths

A recent study used data from the Big Five personality to estimate psychopathy prevalence in the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C.

Surprising Science
  • The study estimated psychopathy prevalence by looking at the prevalence of certain traits in the Big Five model of personality.
  • The District of Columbia had the highest prevalence of psychopathy, compared to other areas.
  • The authors cautioned that their measurements were indirect, and that psychopathy in general is difficult to define precisely.
Keep reading Show less