A five year old question Do the planets really orbit the Sun? which received 117 up votes and 2 down votes has now been closed by 5 users as off-topic.

I've argued that

To explore the solar system we need to know where objects in the solar system are in order to determine proper trajectories. To do that we need to appreciate the details of how solar system objects move and that understanding includes the fact that the inner planets orbit mostly around the Sun, but the Sun and the inner planets also move in a small but crazy way about the barycenter of the Sun and the outer planets. Without this understanding interplanetary exploration is impossible.


The help page can't cover edge cases like that in such a short space. Instead we can trust the community. So I'm voting to re-open because 115 > 5.

I feel that this question, and its closing is an example of at least some of the following:

  1. Questions can be on-topic in multiple sites, on-topic elsewhere does not mean off-topic here.
  2. The help center is a preliminary guideline but we need to take the community's views into account, as seen in its participation on the question and the number of related questions.
  3. The "tyranny of five" should be used with extreme caution; closing affects everyone by blocking everyone from posting further answers.
  4. That orbits are n-body and not Keplerian is a constant theme of Q&A here as it is the main point in answers to this question.

Related in meta:

  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean by "This is way before HNQ"? HNQ has existed for much longer than Space Exploration Stack Exchange. $\endgroup$
    – gerrit Mod
    Mar 9 '20 at 9:38
  • $\begingroup$ @gerrit oh, I was thinking of HNQ "hotness tracking" which only started February 2019. Edited accordingly. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 9 '20 at 10:40
  • $\begingroup$ @uhoh This question very much hit HNQ. $\endgroup$ Mar 17 '20 at 21:45
  • $\begingroup$ @CodesInChaos they're called "brain farts" and I get them in the morning when I type before coffee, oh which reminds me... :-) $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 18 '20 at 0:08
  • $\begingroup$ I do not understand the massive downvotes on this question anymore than I understand the five votes to close on the question in question. The (IMHO) erroneous closure of questions that were obviously on-topic was one of the the key reasons my contributing to stackoverflow.com has essentially dropped to zero. Just because an SO question involved mathematics was not, at least to me, a reason to close. Here, just because a question involves physics is not a reason to close. $\endgroup$ Mar 22 '20 at 19:54

It was previously ruled as on topic (technically ruled as "not strictly off topic"), but this is definitely one of those borderline cases. I think we need a new meta question about what is on/off topic in regards to celestial mechanics, and the result of that discussion needs to be a final determination on this question. If the new rules decided make it off topic, then we also need to lock it as a question with historical significance.

  • $\begingroup$ This sounds like a great idea. I've expressed my concerns here already so I'll (try hard to) just observe. Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 9 '20 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ Makes sense. I hope there will be some fruitful discussion on the yet-to-be-created meta thread, $\endgroup$ Mar 9 '20 at 13:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Meta question created: space.meta.stackexchange.com/q/1492/58 $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage Mod
    Mar 9 '20 at 14:06
  • $\begingroup$ I just wrote this. Also I don't understand how one draws a line between orbital mechanics and celestial mechanics. If OM is the application of ballistics and celestial mechanics to the practical problems then we can convert any CM (and possibly off-topic) question to an OM (and possibly on-topic) question by simply including a reference to a potential application... $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 10 '20 at 3:53
  • $\begingroup$ which might then be deemed a cynical disingenuous attempt to thread a keyhole of on-topicality. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 10 '20 at 3:54

I initiated the closure, so I think I should post the original reasoning I gave, along with the points on which I feel convinced that the question in question should remain closed.

  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is an astronomy question, specifically a celestial mechanics question.

    And our help center clearly states that questions on the following topics are off-topic.

    Physical sciences, such as geology, astronomy, cosmology, meteorology, except as they relate to spacecraft and space exploration

  • About @uhoh's argument that 115 > 5: I think there's only five on the right because VTC requires only five votes :)

  • @uhoh also argued that (I paraphrase;) it was a highly voted question and was hence found suitable for the site by the community. My reply to that:

    And about the community, it could have easily been missed towards the beginning, and the high vote count might've discouraged flagging as off-topic, for exactly the same reason you gave.

    Upon examination of the post timeline, upon uhoh's suggestion, I noticed that the post has been through the closing process prior to this as well.

  • Additionally, I believe close votes and upvotes cannot be equally compared in any way, especially on this site. I have seen (and you must have too) questions that needed closing but had a positive score (and no, I'm not talking about duplicates).

  • Keeping and encouraging questions that belong to a different site is detrimental to the fundamental idea of documenting and storing knowledge in an easily retrievable Q+A format. Let us not think our site is a standalone one: we belong to the entire network.

I know, we should be lenient and flexible and yadda yadda, but I also think, being a StackExchange site, we should exercise some seriousness about site policies and guidelines.

Closing the question doesn't kill anyone – and neither are the well-written answers going to vaporize into thin air, but it gives a clear message about what is on-topic and what is off-topic to people, especially new users.

P.S. I would be more than willing to VTR if the community convinces me that I am wrong.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer! I don' t think that anyone would characterize either me or my vote to re-open as not serious about site policies and guidelines. As we work through these in meta and when a sufficient level of consensus is established (which is sometimes hard to judge in a sleepy meta site like ours) they can be added to our Community Policy Repository, presumably for this type of question to the scope section. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 9 '20 at 2:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @uhoh Neither did I characterize you as such! Let's hope we can arrive at a consensus before this issue is forgotten, as this seems to be a crucial issue. If we arrive at a concrete policy here, it will be much easier to deal with these kinds of questions in the time ahead. $\endgroup$ Mar 9 '20 at 2:45
  • $\begingroup$ small misquote; I didn't say anything about "unclosed for all these years" and the question's history shows that it was closed, edited, and re-opened once already, so this seems to be somewhat of a reversal, thus the title of my question here. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 9 '20 at 4:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @uhoh I stand corrected. Sorry about that! $\endgroup$ Mar 9 '20 at 5:08
  • $\begingroup$ I expressed some concerns under this answer that need to be addressed. Can you propose a "rule" that would not negatively impact dozens or hundreds of existing well-received and answered questions? What exactly is the "clear message" that you propose to send? What exactly will be the topicality test that can be applied both to past and future questions? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 9 '20 at 11:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @uhoh , is it alright if I get back to you in a day? I am a little packed with my coursework right now, so it's hard for me to sit down and think of a concrete policy or sub-policy pertaining to this issue, which by no means is a small one. I can answer one of your questions (immediately) though: The "clear message" isn't what I am trying to relate to in some clichéd sense, but just an indication to people who come across such questions while browsing which says "this is a very interesting, highly voted question but it isn't aligned with the topics meant for discussion on our site". $\endgroup$ Mar 9 '20 at 12:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This being the case, perhaps the best thing is to move the question to astronomy? $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto Mod
    Mar 9 '20 at 13:03
  • $\begingroup$ @PearsonArtPhoto I think it is too old to migrate! In my opinion, it should be allowed to exist on our site, but in a locked state with the "historical significance" notice that called2voyage describes in his answer. $\endgroup$ Mar 9 '20 at 13:53
  • $\begingroup$ Forgot about the old migration question rule. Hmm, will think on this some. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto Mod
    Mar 9 '20 at 16:08

There is no contradiction between upvotes and votes to close. It happened multiple times that I casted both an upvote and a vote to close on the same question.

Upvoting is for good questions. A question can be interesting, well researched, and fun, but also off-topic. In this case I will upvote and vote to close. Perhaps not if it's blatantly off-topic, because then the asker has evidently poorly researched what the site is about, but I've actually yet to see a well researched question that was blatantly off-topic.

  • $\begingroup$ My question asks if "...the orbits of solar system objects suddenly now off-topic?" There are a lot of questions about searches for minimoons and near-earth asteroids, and for missions to them. If we're going to make some policy here one had better review the substantial body of existing questions; there could be dozens or hundreds that will suddenly be off-topic unless cool heads prevail. Rather than this short answer, can you recommend a way to move forward on this mess that wasn't a problem until today? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 9 '20 at 10:46
  • $\begingroup$ For example, the orbit of an asteroid or minimoon is on-topic if a spacecraft is planned to visit it, or if the OP simply says that they are interested in planning a spacecraft to it, or... Where will this new line that we didn't need until today suddenly be drawn? Questions about the use of JPL's Horizons must not ask for help getting data on solar system objects, but they are okay if they ask for help getting data on artificial objects? How are we to do this so as to not mess with a body of existing questions, and will it improve the site doing so? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 9 '20 at 10:59
  • $\begingroup$ WRE proposes to give a clear message about what is on-topic and what is off-topic to people, especially new users. but what exactly will that new message be and who will be its author? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Mar 9 '20 at 11:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I agree with what you mean to say. The user might not have gone through the help page properly and failed to realize their question was bordering on space exploration and astronomy, and that it could be shoved into space exploration's court with ease (uhh, a tough nut to crack in this case(the possible link to space ex in uhoh's question is quite convoluted), but not so for the "minimoons and NEOs" uhoh talks about in the comments above). $\endgroup$ Mar 9 '20 at 12:55

Potential Community wiki and/or workspace for existing questions that may demonstrate the community's current thinking and what a policy change or new codification might do to existing Q&A.

Please feel free to add additional examples.

Probably on-topic in Space SE, they're not about spacecraft but probably about "potentially useful" orbits

Would these suddenly be off-topic?


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