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True-Color Photos of All the Planets

True-Color solar system collage: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto. (Wish I could add Ceres and Eris, but we don't yet have hi-res color photos of them.)
True-Color solar system collage: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto. (Wish I could add Ceres and Eris, but we don't yet have hi-res color photos of them.) | Source

My Quest to Make a True-Color Collage of Nine Planets

My photo collage above was inspired by Steven Gildea's "Planetary Suite" oil painting, which thousands of people are sharing on social media (a) without credit and (b) without realizing it's a painting. It's beautiful, but it's not strictly accurate, especially since it was made before we reached Pluto.

So I set out to make a collage of the real thing. This proved much more difficult than I'd anticipated. It turns out that most photos of planets aren't true color!

Solar System Family Portrait (Some False-Color)

Collage of NASA photos of different planets, including some false-color, enhanced-color, and radar topography with artificial color.
Collage of NASA photos of different planets, including some false-color, enhanced-color, and radar topography with artificial color. | Source

Spacecraft Can See More Wavelengths Than Superman

You may have seen a collage like this one posted by Business Insider. They're real NASA photos, but they're not necessarily what the human eye would see.

Space probes and telescopes have sensitive cameras that pick up wavelengths beyond the range of human vision. This lets these instruments "see" many details invisible to the human eye, helping to distinguish different kinds of rocks, ices, gases or other materials on the surface.

Most spacecraft can "see" into infrared and/or ultraviolet wavelengths:

Visible light is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that human eyes can detect. We can also sense infrared as heat.
Visible light is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that human eyes can detect. We can also sense infrared as heat. | Source

False-Color Images: Visible Light Plus Infrared or Ultraviolet

To help us "see" hidden details, scientists convert non-visible wavelengths into colors we can see. Either they'll represent infrared and ultraviolet with bright colors (below right), or they'll convert the image to show colors visible to human eyes (below left).

(Adjusted) Natural-Color and (Original) False-Color Photo of Mercury

Right: Mercury MESSENGER spacecraft captures color in visible and near-infrared wavelengths. Left: NASA scientists adjust the original false-color inage to show colors to approximate what the human eye would see.
Right: Mercury MESSENGER spacecraft captures color in visible and near-infrared wavelengths. Left: NASA scientists adjust the original false-color inage to show colors to approximate what the human eye would see. | Source

Martian Surface: Converting Mars Light to Earth Light

The Martian atmosphere is very dusty. Photos taken from the surface of Mars often look like they were taken during a dust storm at sunset.

To overcome this problem, researchers adjust photos from Mars missions using a color calibration patch stuck on the spacecraft. Knowing what that patch looked like before it left Earth helps scientists adjust Mars photos to match Earth lighting. This makes it easier to compare Martian and Earth rocks.

NASA scientist Donald E. Davis, who worked on Mars missions, has a detailed article on The Colors of Mars, discussing the hows and whys of color in photos taken by the different rovers and landers.

Earth-Lighting vs. True-Color Martian Landscape

Mars Opportunity Rover panorama, January 2015. This is appoximately what this spot would look like under Earth lighting conditions. [NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.]
Mars Opportunity Rover panorama, January 2015. This is appoximately what this spot would look like under Earth lighting conditions. [NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.] | Source
Mars Opportunity Rover panorama, January 2015. This is what it would look like if you were actually standing there. [NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.]
Mars Opportunity Rover panorama, January 2015. This is what it would look like if you were actually standing there. [NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.] | Source

Ultraviolet & Radar Images

Venus is another planet that's usually shown in false-color. In reality, it's covered in a thick layer of cream-colored clouds that are almost featureless. It looks like a pearl.

I've never seen a true-color image of Venus from any spacecraft. Instead, we get false-color photos using infrared or ultraviolet. For radar images, which are essentially elevation maps, the color is simulated, based on surface photos taken by Soviet landers.

Venus Seen in False-Color and Radar Topography

Left: ultraviolet view of Venus by NASA Pioneer Orbiter, Feb. 26, 1979. Right: RADAR image of Venus by NASA Magellan Orbiter, early 1990s.
Left: ultraviolet view of Venus by NASA Pioneer Orbiter, Feb. 26, 1979. Right: RADAR image of Venus by NASA Magellan Orbiter, early 1990s. | Source

So, Then, How Did I Make That Photo Collage?

It took a lot of hunting, but I finally found true-color, or adjusted to true-color, photos of the most well-known nine planets. (Sorry, Ceres, Eris, Haumea and friends).

Here's the photos I used.

Mercury - MESSENGER Spacecraft - October 6, 2008

Source

Mercury Adjusted to True Color

The Mercury MESSENGER spacecraft surveyed the planet in 11 different wavelengths, including near-infrared, to bring out color.

Venus - False-Color Image Adjusted to True-Color by Mattias Malmer

Old Mariner 10 false-color photo adjusted to true-color by image processing enthusiast.
Old Mariner 10 false-color photo adjusted to true-color by image processing enthusiast. | Source

Venus via the Image Processing Community

For the past few years, astrophotography enthusiasts like Mattias Malmer have been sifting through old NASA mission files, looking for color data and photos which they can combine and adjust into true-color images.

NASA respects the work of the image processing community, most of whom are professional photographers and/or astronomers. In fact, I first found Malmer's color-adjusted Venus photo on a NASA scientific article.

Here's more true-color image-processed photos of Venus and Mercury.

Earth - Himawari-8 Spacecraft - August 11, 2015

Japan's new Himawari-8 weather satellite takes many realtime images every day. Check the link and zoom in — the resolution is far better than this!
Japan's new Himawari-8 weather satellite takes many realtime images every day. Check the link and zoom in — the resolution is far better than this! | Source

Realtime Images of Earth From Japan

Japan's new Himawari-8 weather satellite, perched in geosynchronous orbit over the Pacific ocean, takes the highest-resolution true-color photos I've ever seen. The above screencap does not do it justice.

It takes multiple photos every day, resulting in absolutely incredible animations like those showcased by the New York Times.

Mars - Mars Global Surveyor - June 10, 2001

See that page for 6 different MGS views of Mars getting swallowed by a monster dust storm.
See that page for 6 different MGS views of Mars getting swallowed by a monster dust storm. | Source

Even Mars Is Tricky

Surprisingly, finding a true-color photo of Mars was my biggest challenge.

First, Mars is not always the same color: it varies due to massive dust storms (Surveyor, Hubble) and/or minute amounts of water ice in the atmosphere (see planetary scientists' comments on this post). Second, we have photos from several decades of spacecraft, some better calibrated than others. Also, the Hubble website sometimes uses the term "true color" loosely to mean "natural color, as opposed to false color like this."

So I scoured various images and had to make a judgement call:

  1. NASA calls this "true color", a Viking photomosaic projected on an elevation map: butterscotch.
  2. Here's the STUNNINGLY GORGEOUS Viking photomosaic used in #1, minus elevation data: butterscotch.
  3. National Geo's award-winning, independently-praised true-color map of Mars, using Mars Global Surveyor data: butterscotch.
  4. Hubble calls this image "true color": brick red.
  5. NOT true color, but "stretched" to bring out details: brick red.

I've decided to go with the Mars Global Surveyor images used by National G. That library is maintained/color-calibrated by Malin Space Science Systems, responsible for cameras on most Mars missions for the past 20 years (NASA also tapped MSS to make the Juno camera for its next-generation Jupiter mission).

Ceres - Dawn Spacecraft - May 7, 2015 (black & white)

Ceres image tidied by Dr. Lakdawalla. I really wanted to included Ceres, but I couldn't find a natural-color image from Dawn, and Hubble's is small and fuzzy and not true-color.
Ceres image tidied by Dr. Lakdawalla. I really wanted to included Ceres, but I couldn't find a natural-color image from Dawn, and Hubble's is small and fuzzy and not true-color. | Source

The Mini World Brigade

Yes, I know. There's either more or less than nine planets.

For puposes of my collage above, the "dwarf planet" debate is moot: we're not going to have detailed photos of Eris or Pluto's other siblings any time soon. I'll add Ceres when the spacecraft currently orbiting it gets around to sending color photos.

For what it's worth, here's Hubble photos of Ceres with color. If you mentally lower the saturation on those, it'll probably be about right.

Jupiter - Cassini Spacecraft - Dec 29, 2000

True-color photo from Cassini wrapped on globe by JPL imaging. Yes, Jupiter really is that fat. It spins incredibly fast. (The black spot is the shadow of one of its moons.)
True-color photo from Cassini wrapped on globe by JPL imaging. Yes, Jupiter really is that fat. It spins incredibly fast. (The black spot is the shadow of one of its moons.) | Source

Jupiter Seen By Cassini En Route to Mars

Finally! Here's a straightforward one.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft snapped several beauty shots of the giant planet on the way out to Saturn. Here's another gorgeous Cassini photo of Jupiter showing a little more detail, and one closer still.

Jupiter is a beefy 88,846 miles in diameter, yet its day is less than 10 Earth hours. Its fast rotation causes it to bulge sideways. Jupiter is 11.2 Earths wide but only 10.5 Earths tall, a difference of about 5,764 miles.

Saturn - Cassini Spacecraft - Oct 6, 2004

True-color photomosaic of Saturn assembled from 126 images taken by Cassini on the same day.
True-color photomosaic of Saturn assembled from 126 images taken by Cassini on the same day. | Source

Cassini at Saturn: 2004-2015

The Cassini Mission is responsible for a decade plus of amazing science, discovering the rivers and seas of Titan, the giant geysers of Enceladus, and the iconic photo of Earth seen behind the rings of Saturn. Cassina also dropped the first probe to photograph the surface of Titan!

You may have noticed some faint blue-gray stormcloud spots, more visible in the hi-res version of this image. In 2011, Saturn had massive thunderstorms at about that latitude in the northern hemisphere.

Like Jupiter, Saturn is squashed due to its fast rotation; its day is 10.5 Earth hours.

Uranus - Voyager 2 Spacecraft - 1986 (Slightly Color Adjusted)

I combined Voyager 2's highest-resolution Uranus photo with the Hue from Hubble.
I combined Voyager 2's highest-resolution Uranus photo with the Hue from Hubble. | Source

Uranus: Visible Light, Invisible Beauty

Tranquil, isn't it? In infrared, you can see that Uranus has faint smoky rings and wispy clouds.

Once again, this took some work. I knew from the Neptune images that Voyager 2 images tend to be a little over-saturated, making Uranus look like spearamint.

To correct this, I overlaid a lower-resolution, "natural-color" Hubble image of Uranus [NASA/ESA, Erich Karkoschka] and borrowed the Hue. Dr. Erich Karkoschka is one of the foremost atmospheric scientists for Neptune and Uranus, so I'm a little more confident in his "natural color." Also, I compared my result with Björn Jónsson's image processing, and the color is quite close.

ETA: And here's a tiny but uber-cool natural-color photo of Uranus peeping behind Saturn's rings, taken by the Cassini spacecraft.

Neptune - Voyager 2 Spacecraft - 1989

The clouds of Neptune: hydrogen, helium, methane. They race around the planet at 1300 mph/2100 kph.  © Björn Jónsson, (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)
The clouds of Neptune: hydrogen, helium, methane. They race around the planet at 1300 mph/2100 kph. © Björn Jónsson, (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) | Source

Neptune: The Blue Maelstrom

Neptune photos from Voyager 2 tend to be over-saturated, making the planet look like lapis lazuli. It's remarkably blue, but it's not quite that intense.

When I reached out to Dr. Emily Lakdawalla, planetary scientist and blogger for the Planetary Report, she recommended Neptune image processing by Björn Jónsson. See this post explaining how he combined Voyager 2's high-resolution b&w data with lower-resolution color data to make the beautiful mosaic above.

Pluto - New Horizons Spacecraft - July 13, 2015

New Horizons' b&w hi-res camera combined with color data from its low-ras camera.
New Horizons' b&w hi-res camera combined with color data from its low-ras camera. | Source

New Horizons, built 30 years after Voyager, has better low-light optics, so it can see even when the sun is 3 billion miles away.

Like Uranus, Pluto rotates knocked on its side. From New Horizon's perspective, Pluto's north pole is tipped slightly towards us, in that yellowish area near the top of the photo.

My Solar System Portrait (missing: Eris, Makemake, Haumea, et alia)

Note: Ceres is very approximate. I overlaid a Hubble photo on it to get a general idea of color, but we still don't have a full-globe color photo from the Dawn mission to Ceres.
Note: Ceres is very approximate. I overlaid a Hubble photo on it to get a general idea of color, but we still don't have a full-globe color photo from the Dawn mission to Ceres.

Betcha we know who's gonna win this...

Which is your favorite planet?

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Solar System HD (Thomas Picket, 2011, pre-New-Horizons)

© 2015 Ellen

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6 comments

jackclee lm profile image

jackclee lm 16 months ago from Yorktown NY

Congratulations on an excellent hub, well deserved.


Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 16 months ago from California Author

Oh, goodness, I hadn't realized! Thank you very much.


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 16 months ago from Northeast Ohio

Ellen, this was a fantastic hub. Real useful and interesting to know about our planets with those beautiful photos! Voted up!


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Scribenet 14 months ago from Ontario, Canada

I have always been interested in the planets. Thank you for the color corrected versions. I am amazed there are two other blue-hued ones, so I would find Uranus and Neptune to be very interesting though I can't believe how fast those clouds travel on Neptune. My goodness, 1300 mph/2100 kph...mind boggling..and the gases...not so nice!


farmloft profile image

farmloft 11 months ago from Michigan

Great hub. Your portrait is outstanding!


Frances Spiegel 8 weeks ago

Wow! What an amazing article. I really enjoyed it. Thank you for so much hard work.

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    Greekgeek profile image

    Ellen (Greekgeek)754 Followers
    66 Articles

    Daughter of a rocket engineer, granddaughter of a planetarium director, I've been a huge fan of astronomy and space exploration all my life.



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