Then and Now: Our Earliest Close-Ups of the Planets Compared to Today’s Best Shots

Left: Pioneer 10's view of Jupiter in March 1973. Right: Webb Telescope’s view of Jupiter in July 2022.

Left: Pioneer 10’s view of Jupiter in March 1973. Right: Webb Telescope’s view of Jupiter in July 2022.
Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; image processing by Judy Schmidt

For centuries, astronomers were limited to ground-based observations of the planets, but now we use spacecraft to capture close-up views of our neighboring worlds. Excitingly, our views of solar system planets have been getting progressively better over the decades, as these images attest.

The dawn of the Space Age finally made it possible for humankind to capture close-up views of astronomical objects. We haven’t wasted this opportunity, sending probes to every planet in our solar system and even to Pluto, a dwarf planet located over 5 billion miles (8 billion kilometers) away.

The first missions to the planets began in the 1960s, and it’s something we still get excited about. We’ve assembled a series of photos showing some of our earliest images of the planets compared to similar portraits captured during recent missions. Regardless of the era or the quality, each one has a story to tell, and each continues to stir the imagination.

This article was originally published September 14, 2022.

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Image: NASA

NASA’s Mariner 10 mission performed several close flybys of Mercury from February 1974 to March 1975. Mariner 10 captured thousands of photos over the course of its mission, including the highest-resolution images ever taken of Mercury’s surface. It was our first close-up view of the tiny planet, showing craters as small as 500 feet (150 meters) across. The image above, taken on March 29, 1974, was captured when Mariner 10 was 3,700 miles (5,900 kilometers) from the surface, and it revealed a very Moon-like topography.

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Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

MESSENGER, a NASA robotic probe, visited Mercury from 2011 to 2015, and unlike Mariner 10, it actually entered into the planet’s orbit. The image above, taken on October 2, 2013, shows Mercury’s surface in exquisite detail and includes sharp views of both primary and secondary craters. MESSENGER took over 250,000 images while investigating the Sun’s nearest planet.

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Image: NASA/USGS/PDS

Indeed, our understanding of Mercury’s surface features and chemical structure has come a long way since the mid-1970s. Data acquired by MESSENGER’s seven scientific instruments allowed scientists to create highly detailed topographical and spectral maps of the planet. These are the most detailed views we have of Mercury, showing areas where lava once flowed and freshly formed craters, among many other geological features. And as MESSENGER also taught us, Mercury is shrinking.

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Image: NASA

Prior to visiting Mercury, Mariner 10 zipped past Venus, making it the first probe in history to fly by more than one planet. In January 1974, the spacecraft captured an ultraviolet view of Venus, revealing the planet’s carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere, which perpetually obscures Venus’s scorching-hot and inhospitable surface.

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Image: MPS/DLR-PF/IDA

The European Space Agency’s Venus Express mission from 2006 to to 2014 likewise produced close-up views of the Venusian atmosphere, including an ultraviolet view similar to the one taken by Mariner 10. The image above, taken on July 23, 2007, shows the planet’s southern hemisphere.

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Image: JAXA/ISAS/DARTS/Kevin M. Gill

Japan’s Akatsuki probe, parked in orbit around Venus since 2015, has unquestioningly captured the most spectacular views of the shrouded planet. The false-color image above, taken on July 11, 2020, shows Venus through two ultraviolet channels, revealing the different components of the Venusian atmosphere, which consists primarily of carbon dioxide.

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Image: NASA

Mariner 4 was the first spacecraft to perform a close flyby of Mars, doing so on July 15, 1965. This, the first close-up of Mars, is not much to look at, but it was a profound goosebump-inducing image, as TIME explained at the time. Over the course of its mission to the Red Planet, the NASA probe changed our view of Mars, revealing it to be barren and crater-filled and not teeming with life.

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Image: NASA

Mariner 4 sent back a number of images showing clear evidence of craters on Mars, including the image above, which shows a heavily cratered region south of Amazonis Planitia. Mariner 4 circled Mars until its retirement in December 1967.

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Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been capturing spectacular views of the Red Planet since 2006. The false-color image above shows a batch of wind-related features, including ridges, sand dunes and mega-ripples near Gamboa Crater. These days, our views of the Martian surface are practically as good as our space-based views of Earth, not to mention the ground-based views from the various rovers that have worked on the Red Planet over the years.

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Image: NASA

Launched in March 1973, Pioneer 10 was the first probe to cross the asteroid belt and visit Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. The image above was taken when the NASA probe was 1.84 million miles (2.69 million kilometers) from Jupiter, and it’s among the first close-up images we have of the gas giant. The image, taken on December 1, 1974, shows Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a storm measuring 25,000 miles (40,200 km) wide, among other atmospheric features.

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Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill

Juno captured this extraordinary view of Jupiter on February 12, 2019. It’s composed of three color-enhanced images that the NASA probe captured during its 17th flyby of the gas giant, when it travelled between 16,700 miles (26,900 kilometers) and 59,300 miles (95,400 kilometers) above the cloud tops.

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Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; image processing by Judy Schmidt

The Webb Space Telescope is currently orbiting the Sun at a gravitational sweet spot known as L2. Webb is hundreds of millions of miles away from Jupiter, yet it still managed to take a series of highly detailed images of the gas giant in late July, using its Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam). “We hadn’t really expected it to be this good, to be honest,” said Imke de Pater, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who led the observations, in a statement. “We’ve never seen Jupiter like this. It’s all quite incredible.” As a fun aside, the earliest astronomical image ever taken of Jupiter dates back to 1879.

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Image: NASA

NASA’s Pioneer 11 probe captured this close-up view of of Saturn and its Moon Titan on August 26, 1979. “The irregularities in ring silhouette and shadow are due to technical anomalies in the preliminary data later corrected,” according to NASA. Pioneer 11 captured the image when it was 1.77 million miles (2.84 million km) from the ringed planet.

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Image: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

Words cannot do this Cassini image justice. The NASA spacecraft captured this view on September 16, 2006 while the ringed giant was eclipsing the Sun from Cassini’s perspective, and it remains one of the most incredible views ever taken of Saturn, or any solar system object for that matter. The panorama was stitched together from 165 images captured by the probe’s wide-angle camera during a span of nearly three hours.

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Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When Voyager 2 swung by Uranus in January 1986, it captured a wide-angle view of the ice giant at resolutions reaching 90 miles (140 km). The pale blue-green color of the planet’s thin crescent, a product of atmospheric methane, matched the colors captured by ground-based telescopes on Earth. The NASA probe was around 600,000 miles (1 million km) from Uranus at the time this photo was taken.

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Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

No probe has visited Uranus since Voyager 2’s flyby on January 24, 1986, so this remains the best close-up image we have of the pale blue beauty. Encouragingly, a proposed $4.2 billion mission could reach the seventh planet by 2049.

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Image: NASA

Voyager 2 captured this remarkable close-up view of Neptune two hours before its closest approach on August 15, 1989. “Clearly visible for the first time were long light-colored cirrus-type clouds floating high in Neptune’s atmosphere,” NASA explains. “Shadows of these clouds can even be seen on lower cloud decks.” Like Uranus, Neptune’s blue coloring arises from the presence of atmospheric methane.

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Image: NASA

To date, Voyager 2 was and remains the only spacecraft to zip past Neptune. This image, taken on August 25, 1989, is one of the best views we have of the ice giant. The Great Dark Spot is a storm similar to the Great Red Spot on Jupiter.

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Image: NASA

On October 4, 1990, the recently launched Hubble Space Telescope set its sights on Pluto, which was still considered a planet at the time. To capture an image of the distant object, astronomers used Hubble’s onboard Faint Object Camera, a product of the European Space Agency. Ground-based telescopes had previously shown highly pixelated views of Pluto, along with its moon Charon, but the Hubble image offered a clearer view. Still, at an average distance of 3.78 billion miles (6 billion kilometers), Pluto’s finer details remained out of sight.

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Image: NASA/APL/SwRI

We finally got a close-up view of Pluto on July 13, 2015, when NASA’s New Horizon’s probe zoomed past the dwarf planet. The spacecraft captured a shockingly vivid image, showing a bright heart-like feature bordered by darker equatorial terrains. The probe’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) captured this shot when it was 476,000 miles (768,000 kilometers) from the surface. Lower-resolution color data acquired earlier in the day by the probe’s Ralph instrument was combined with the LORRI data to create this striking view.