NASA’s space exploration program does some incredible things. Unfortunately it tends to slide below most people’s attention since planets, moons, and stars don’t really impact our daily lives. And humans are nothing if not selfish beings. That’s not necessary a bad thing and is inherent to all life. But I wanted to take this post to show some of the inspiring images of our celestial neighbors that has been captured by NASA’s probes and telescopes. I’m amazed by the fact that we can see these images at all, given these objects are very very far beyond our world. But I am inspired and I hope you will be too.
The Messenger spacecraft was launched in 2004 to study the surface of Mercury from orbit. It finally arrived in 2011 and continued study the planet until its end in 2015. It returned some high resolution images of the small and hot planet.
Venus was photographed in orbit by Magellan and the surface was imaged by the Venera landers (a composite image from Venera 13 is shown).
Mars is the most visited planet in our solar system. Four different countries/space agencies have visited Mars including NASA, the Soviet Union, the European Space Agency, and most recently the Indian Space Research Organization. Mars’ surface has been imaged and explored by a succession of more complex rovers from Pathfinder to Spirit/Opportunity and now by Curiosity.
Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system. It’s a gas giant that is comprised almost completely of hydrogen and helium. It’s “atmosphere” is pretty much the entire planet. Scientists theorize there is a solid surface and core somewhere deep deep in the center of the planet, but have not yet figure out how to check. The pressure inside Jupiter is so high that the hydrogen gas eventually becomes a liquid and then a conductive metallic fluid as you go deeper. The metallic hydrogen is what gives Jupiter it’s large magnetic field.
Though Jupiter is almost entire gas so you can’t land on it, its many moons are solid and have potential to sustain life. The left image is that of Europa from Galieo show the linae or lines that cross the surface. The lines are attributed to cracks and eruptions in the ice that covers the surface.
Saturn is the first ringed planet. The only images we have are from telescopes and passing spacecrafts. The one below was captured by Cassini. Cassini is the first and only spacecraft so far to enter into orbit around Saturn and study it and its moons. It carried the Huygens probe which landed on the moon Titan. The second image shows Titan crossing in front of Saturn.
Below is an image of Titan from orbit and a composite picture of Titan’s surface built from the data acquired by the Huygens probe during its descent. It looks like something from a movie or video game, but that is the vista of another world.
Neptune has only been visited by one spacecrafts, Voyager 2. Like Jupiter, Neptune has a large storm called the Great Dark Spot. Though recently Hubble images show the spot has disappeared, which may indicate it’s a seasonal event unlike the permanent Great Red Spot of Jupiter.
The final planet in our solar system is Uranus and it has also only been visited by Voyager 2. Voyager 2 also found 10 new moon bringing the total to 15 moons! They’re all very small though with the largest being 150 km in diameter. Uranus is a strange planet in that its axis is tilted almost 90 degrees. Thus its north pole always points at the Sun and half the planet is always in day and the other half always in night.
Most recently, the New Horizons mission reached the demoted planet Pluto and obtained new and beautiful images of the planetoid. The pale region even kind of looks like the Disney character Pluto.
Asteroids and Comets
In addition to planets and moons, we have also sent mission to asteroids and comet. Two recent ones are comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (left) visited by the Rosetta spacecraft, and asteroid Itokawa (right) visited by the Hayabusa mission from Japan.
The solar system would not be complete without talking about the center of it all, the Sun. Our Sun has been studied extensively, though we still have much to understand. Below are colored images of the Sun and a close up of a solar flare.
There are a tons of pictures of our solar system that has been acquired by telescopes and spacecrafts. They provide scientific data but also a glimpse at our closest neighbors in our little corner of the universe. I encourage you to use your search engine of choice and look through a few pictures of your planet, moon, star, or asteroid of interest. I hope you will be inspired and maybe learn something new.