You are on page 1of 4

True-Color Photos of All the Planets

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!
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:


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).
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.
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.
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 Adjusted to True Color
The Mercury MESSENGER spacecraft surveyed the planet in 11 different wavelengths, including
near-infrared, to bring out color. See this collage of one MESSENGER photo adjusted four different
ways to approximate "true color." I went with the bottom-right version.
Here's another face of the planet, slightly lower resolution: "True Colors of Mercury".
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.
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.
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:
NASA calls this "true color", a Viking photomosaic projected on an elevation map:
butterscotch.Here's the STUNNINGLY GORGEOUS Viking photomosaic used in #1, minus elevation
data: butterscotch.National Geo's award-winning, independently-praised true-color map of Mars,
using Mars Global Surveyor data: butterscotch.Hubble calls this image "true color": brick red.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 nextgeneration Jupiter mission).
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 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.
Cassini at Saturn: 2004-2015Uranus: 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 Bjrn Jnsson'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: 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 Bjrn Jnsson. 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.
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.
http://hubpages.com/hub/True-Color-Photos-of-All-the-Planets