Pictures of Planets

In the last few decades, there have been many wonderful pictures of planets returned from spacecraft exploring our solar system. In this area we present a selection of these pictures of planets. We have primarily sought to choose images that display and explain the unique characteristics of each of the planets. In addition, there is a focus on pictures of planets (and moons) that have the possibility of supporting extraterrestrial life. Weather features and seasonal patterns are also themes throughout the presentation. We conclude with a review of the rapidly rising catalog of exoplanets – new planets outside our solar system – and the search for extraterrestrial life.

In planet Mercury, we show MESSENGER pictures of this small, hot planet that looks similar to our moon and is the innermost planet of our solar system.

In planet Venus, we provide images of this cloudy, sulfurous planet as seen from space as well as incredible photographs from a Venera lander showing the extreme hot, flat, volcanic surface of the planet.

In planet Mars, we present a series of pictures from the Mars Global Surveyor that show the regular seasonal weather patterns on the planet. Next we highlight a set of Mars Rover images - high resolution panoramic pictures of Mars’s surface gathered by the Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. We conclude with images of evidence of life on Mars.

In planet Jupiter, we start with a beautiful Cassini portrait of this colorful, swirling, cloudy gas giant that is the largest planet in the solar system. Our next set of images show the massive storm system known as Jupiter’s Red Spot. We finish with pictures from the Galileo spacecraft of the Europa moon that may have a large underground ocean supporting extraterrestrial life.

In planet Saturn, we view Cassini spacecraft pictures of this gas giant and its remarkable and dazzling rings. We also show pictures of two moons that are also possibilities for supporting extraterrestrial life - the hazy, orange Titan moon and tiny but exciting Enceladus.

In planet Uranus, we turn our attention to the first of the ice giants and the coldest planet in the solar system. Our Hubble images show how its unusual 98⁰ axial tilt makes the planet appear to lie on its side as it orbits the Sun.

In planet Neptune, we conclude with the second ice giant and the furthest planet from the Sun in our solar system. We view Neptune’s methane blue color and evidence of the winds that drive clouds and storms around the planet at enormous speed.

Pluto was not included in our pictures of the planets since the 2006 decision by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to characterize Pluto as a dwarf planet along with Eris and Ceres.

In Exoplanets, we review the significant discoveries of new planets over the past 20 years. We discuss the more recently identified extrasolar planets that could support life such as those orbiting Gliese 581 and those newly identified by the Kepler telescope.

Finally, in the section on Extraterrestrial Life, we note the excellent possibilities for finding simple forms of life on other planets (or moons) in our own solar system, such as the planet Mars, the Europa moon of planet Jupiter, or the hazy Titan moon and tiny Enceladus orbiting the planet Saturn. We discuss the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox as well as the work of the SETI Institute and their search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. We also have a visitor poll asking “Do you think there is life on other planets?”

What is the future for our collection of pictures of planets? At this time, MESSENGER is orbiting Mercury; the Venus Express continues around Venus; the Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Express all are orbiting Mars, while the Rovers Spirit and Opportunity will soon be joined by the Mars Science Laboratory on the planet’s surface; the Cassini spacecraft continues around Saturn; and the New Horizons spacecraft is on its way to the dwarf planet Pluto. Voyager 1 and 2 speed towards the edge of interstellar space while around Earth the Hubble Telescope is even more capable following its final upgrade in 2009. With all these resources, we look forward to many more illuminating and inspiring pictures of planets in the coming years.