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I would imagine planetary orbits are measured from the Sun's centre and not its surface. Is that true?

I can't find anywhere that actually states this.

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

From the Sun's center, always. When you deduce the equations of motion of planets, you're always calculating from the center. Plus, the results don't change when the Sun blows up as a red giant, or collapses as a dwarf.

But even if you measure from the surface, in most cases it won't make a huge difference. In Earth's case, it's a 0.5% error. It would be a larger error for internal planets, smaller error for external planets.

http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=1+A.U.+%2F+%28Sun%27s+radius%29

EDIT: Incorrect. Planets (and the Sun, too) orbit the common barycenter of the Solar System.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Center_of_mass#Barycenter_in_astrophysics_and_astronomy

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Wrong! The planets orbits are measured relative to one of the focus points of the orbit ellipses. (Which is located at the center of gravity of solar system), see Rorys answer –  Georg Sep 21 '11 at 13:19
    
@Georg Indeed, that is the most exact answer. I edited my reply above. Thanks for pointing that out. –  Florin Andrei Sep 21 '11 at 17:41
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It's how the maths/physics works - barring miniscule alterations due to non-uniform distribution of mass, the centre of mass of a planet orbits around the centre of mass of the Sun.

And the centre of mass of the Solar_System (which is very near the centre of the Sun) orbits the centre of mass of the galaxy, etc.

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""(which is pretty damn near the centre of the sun)"" Wrong! The center of gravity is often outside the suns surface! –  Georg Sep 21 '11 at 13:16
    
in our solar system? –  Rory Alsop Sep 21 '11 at 15:53
    
I wouldn't know of a second one known as precise as it is neccesary for that. –  Georg Sep 21 '11 at 16:16
    
:-) I guess I asked for that –  Rory Alsop Sep 21 '11 at 18:40
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Look here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Center_of_mass scroll down to "Barycenter in astrophysics..." –  Georg Sep 21 '11 at 19:04
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Positions and distances are calculated with respect to the center of mass of a body, not with respect to the geometric center, or surface. The center of the Earth (and therefore its surface) moves with respect to its center of mass by about a centimeter. Mercury's center of mass is offset from its center of figure (geometric center) by 640 meters.

Radar ranging directly measures the surface to surface distance, but these distances are converted to center-of-mass distances in order to calculate orbits.

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