Captured with NASA’s Messenger spacecraft in 2011, this image of Mercury shows the tiny, hot planet’s many craters, named after writers, artists and musicians.
This one’s a little bit more dated, dating from 1996 during the Magellan mission, also known as the Venus Radar Mapper. It’s been in orbit since 1989, but this shot is one of our favorites of its long trip out to the second planet. The dark spots all over the planet are meteorite impacts, and that big light section right in the center is Ovda Regio, a massive mountain range.
Over 40 years after the famous “Blue Marble” picture showed the world what our planet looks like from afar in gorgeous detail, NASA’s DSCOVR satellite began taking regular portraits of Earth from its stable position a million miles away.
For Mars, we’re going to reach all the way back to 1980. Recent efforts on Mars have resulted in some of the highest-quality shots ever taken of the Red Planet, but they’re mostly from close by or, lately, on the surface. Those are incredible, but we were really looking for a “marble” style picture, and this is one of the most gorgeous we’ve ever seen. It’s a mosaic of images taken by the Viking 1 orbiter. That gash in the middle is Valles Marineris, a massive canyon along the planet’s equator that’s among the largest in our solar system.
Jupiter’s prettiest shot came from, believe it or not, a flyby–this beautiful image was taken in November of 2003 with the somewhat narrow camera on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft while Cassini was on its way to Saturn. Interestingly, everything you see in this image is actually a cloud, not the surface of the planet itself–the white and tan rings are all different types of cloud cover. This image is notable because these colors are very close to what the human eye would see.
And when the Cassini probe finally made it past Jupiter and out to Saturn, it was all worth it, because the photos of Saturn and its moons are extraordinary. This shot was compiled from a 9-hour-long photo session that let scientists capture this gorgeous backlit view.
Poor Uranus. In 1986, when Voyager 2 passed by the first “ice giant” on its way out to the unknown, it looked like nothing more than a featureless blue-green sphere. That’s due to a haze of methane clouds, which are the final layer of frozen gases in this little-known planet. It’s believed that there are clouds of water somewhere underneath, but, well, we’re not really sure.
The final planet that is technically a planet according to scientists (but not our hearts), Neptune was only discovered in 1846 and even then it was discovered due to mathematical calculation, not due to observation–changes in the orbit of Uranus led astronomer Alexis Brouvard to the discovery that another planet was out there. And this image is not very good because Neptune has been visited only once, by the Voyager 2, in 1989. It’s hard to get a sense of what’s going on out on Neptune–temperatures are barely above absolute zero, it’s buffeted by the strongest winds in the solar system (up to 1,300mph), and in fact we have very little idea how the planet was formed or operates.
So, yes, Pluto is a “dwarf planet” rather than a regular planet. But we couldn’t leave it out, especially with all the amazing images sent back from New Horizons flyby in 2015. What was once just a blurry circle is now a high-definition wonder with features that will keep planetary scientists busy for years to come.