The colorful night sky greets you with a shining display of celestial bodies. And each one has a story to tell. But let’s look past the glittering stars to our solar system planets. What colors are the planets? Well, they come in a bright panel of colors that look like painted gems.
Images of Earth from space show a serene blue jewel with green patches and wispy white clouds. Then, there is Mars, the red planet that captures our desire to explore and colonize. The solar system’s planet colors paint a vibrant palette. And they capture our scientific curiosity to understand the reasons for the diversity.
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What Colors Are the Planets?
Today, it’s all about the colors of the planets in our cosmic neighborhood. They are a spectacle to behold. But they also hold insights into each planet’s atmosphere and composition. Planet colors even contain some history about the world’s formation and evolution. And we’ll also delve into the interplay of light, particles, and gases that make up the shades of color we see.
The planet’s colors have a basis in scientific significance. But the shades and depths capture our imaginations. They inspire myths and stories throughout popular culture. Here are the primary colors of each solar system world.
- Mercury – Gray
- Venus – Gray and brown
- Earth – Blue, green, brown, and white
- Mars – Red, tan, and brown
- Jupiter – Brown, tan, and orange, with white cloud stripes
- Saturn – Gold, blue-gray, and brown
- Uranus – Blue-green
- Neptune – Blue
Saturn’s golden hues shimmer through space, while Neptune’s icy blues give you a chill just looking at it. Let’s unlock the color secrets of the worlds surrounding us. It is the convergence of science and art as we dive into the colors of the planets in a new light.
The Blue and Green Marvel: Earth
From the vantage point of space, Earth appears as a striking sapphire and green orb against outer space’s darkness. Its vibrant blue and green colors hint at our home planet’s uniqueness.
The primary contributor to Earth’s iconic blue color is its atmosphere. Gases and particles scatter the shorter wavelengths of light as sunlight enters our atmosphere. It makes our skies and oceans look blue.
Here’s how it works.
- Rayleigh scattering causes the Sun’s white light to bounce around as it hits particles in Earth’s atmosphere.
- Blue light is more susceptible to the scattering phenomenon because it has a short wavelength.
- Longer light wavelengths get absorbed, so you don’t see as many reds, yellows, and greens.
How Does Light Scatter?
The atmosphere surrounding our world has a lot of air molecules or particles. Sunlight hits them and gets redirected or “scattered.” These particles are smaller than visible light’s wavelengths.
In 1871, Lord Rayleigh (John William Strutt) discovered this light scattering type. So, the name comes from his discovery. He said electromagnetic radiation disperses by particles with a radius less than about 1/10 the radiation’s wavelength.
So, the molecule or particle size is much smaller than visible light’s wavelength. Rayleigh scattering increases as light’s wavelength decreases. And so, Earth’s atmospheric particles scatter blue light more than red visible light.
Earth’s Daylight Sky Color
The Sun is directly overhead during the noon hour and appears white. That’s because light travels a short path through the atmosphere. And the shorter distance doesn’t scatter much of the sunlight.
Now, if you shine that same white light through a prism, you’ll see a rainbow of color. So even though the Sun’s light appears white, it actually holds all the colors within it. You just might not be able to see them all.
However, the sky appears in varying shades of blue throughout the day. That’s because blue light has a shorter wavelength. So when it hits an atmospheric particle, it gets scattered all over the sky. But the other wavelength colors are more extended and don’t scatter as much.
The most significant exception is the color violet. Its light has a shorter wavelength than blue light. So why doesn’t the sky look violet? The answer comes down to human makeup. Our eyes can more easily detect blue light. And it is also because more sunlight shines through the atmosphere as blue light instead of violet.
How Do We Get Vibrant Sunrise and Sunset Planet Colors?
The Sun lies lower in the sky during the sunrise and sunset. So light has to travel further through our planet’s atmosphere. The added distance means more of the blue light gets scattered away.
So, we see more orange and red light instead of blue morning and evening skies. Because redder colors have longer wavelengths, they experience less scattering when sunlight hits atmospheric molecules. And that creates the beautiful skies we love during dawn and dusk.
Below, we’ll examine how the same scattering phenomenon acts differently on other planets. For example, Mars’ skies look redder during the day and blue-gray at dusk and dawn.
This easy-to-follow example shows light’s energy as it travels in waves. Blue light travels in shorter waves that are easy to bump and scatter. On the other hand, red light travels in longer, lazy waves that make their way through space without much distortion.
Earth’s Planetary Color Also Comes From Oceans
If you’re like us, you may have thought Earth gets its blue color from our oceans. And that’s partly true. But where do the seas get their blue color? Is it reflecting from the blue sky?
Once again, the different light wavelengths interact with substances differently. And that’s what makes the oceans blue. It’s not a reflection from the sky. Instead, water molecules absorb longer wavelengths of light.
So, the Sun’s blue and green hues show more on the water’s surface than the longer wavelength colors. Blue’s shorter light wavelength doesn’t get absorbed. So it gets reflected back out. Green shows up when sunlight bounces off particles or sediment within the water.
Since ocean waters cover more than 70% of Earth’s surface, it makes our planet look primarily blue from outer space. The water and light interaction gives us our distinctive colors. But it also underscores the significance of our oceans in maintaining the planet’s ecological balance.
In addition, Earth’s lush vegetation contributes to the overall color of the planet. You can see green shades from our planet’s forests and jungles. They combine with the blue oceans and white clouds for a vibrant view.
Do Humans Change Earth’s Color?
Human activities have disrupted Earth’s natural blues and greens in some areas. Deforestation and urbanization alter the landscape and add darker patches to the greenery.
In areas of increased air pollution, aerosols and particles influence how sunlight interacts with the atmosphere. It impacts how light scatters and could potentially alter the color hues we see from space.
Of course, humans and other life forms leave their mark on the planet’s color palette. It is a natural effect of living. But it’s also a gentle reminder to leave our world better than we received it. So, generations from now, the vibrant blues and greens will still shine.
The Rusty Neighbor: Mars
Our neighboring planet, Mars, stands out in the night sky with its unmistakable reddish hue. “The Red Planet” nickname comes from the world’s distinct appearance.
Mars owes its reddish color to the prevalence of iron oxide. You might know that more commonly as rust. And it blankets the rocky world’s landscape.
The planet’s surface is rich in iron minerals. And over time, the iron has undergone oxidation due to the planet’s harsh environment. This process forms the reddish-brown dust and soil, giving Mars its characteristic reddish glow.
The Hubble image below shows Mars during a 2018 springtime dust storm. You can still see darker regions of the planet covered with dark bedrock. They have volcanic features like sand dunes that ground down from ancient lava flows. These sands are coarse and less reflective than the fine dust that gives nearby brighter areas their rusty color.
The two white dots in the dark space of the lower part of the photograph are Mars’ moons, Deimos (left) and Phobos (right.)
How Does Mars’ Atmosphere Affect the Planet’s Color?
The planet has a thin atmosphere that plays a significant role in its coloration. Unlike Earth’s thick atmosphere, Mars’ is sparse and composed mainly of carbon dioxide and very fine dust particles. The dust scatters sunlight differently than our planet experiences. It allows the longer wavelengths of light, such as red and orange, to dominate the colors we perceive on Mars from a distance.
Here’s how it works. Mars has a thin atmosphere, so there are fewer air molecules. And the atmosphere’s Rayleigh scattering that Earth experiences is almost non-existent on Mars. So you might still think the sky would be a very faint, light blue.
But Mars has a constant dust haze in its daytime sky, so the light looks more yellow. Similar to how our oceans absorb longer wavelengths, the most substantial dust molecules absorb short light waves. So, the blue light disappears into the haze. And then, the particles scatter the remaining colors to give the Martian sky its orange-red butterscotch hue.
Now, remember it takes sunlight longer to travel through Mars’ atmosphere at dawn and dusk. So, the blue light gets scattered across the horizon. And that gives our neighboring planet the color of blue-gray during the sunrise and sunset.
NASA’s Mars Pathfinder Lander took a couple of images of the red world during the day and at sunset. And the colors are almost opposite to Earth’s colors. Daytime shows an orange and red sky when the Sun shines onto the planet. But as it sets, the sky looks more blue-gray.
Mars’ Red Planet Color in History and Culture
Since Mars is one of the night sky’s brightest objects, even the ancients knew it. Mars’ deep reddish color led to their associating the planet with blood or war. In addition, cultures assigned powerful deities to the red world. And that led to mythologies passed through generations.
Ancient Romans thought of Mars as their war god. He represented their military power not as a force of destruction but as a way of securing peace. Humans first observed Mars’ canal-like surface features in the late 1800s. And that led to all kinds of alien speculations.
More recently, human curiosity about the Red Planet has led to Hollywood space documentaries, TV shows, and movies. Some great ones are listed.
- Total Recall – 1990 and 2012 movies
- The Expanse – TV and novels
- The Martian – book and movie
- Stowaway – movie
- The Space Between Us – movie
Because telescopes and technology improved, astronomers can explore Mars in more detail. And while that quenches some curiosity, it piques other desires to learn even more. So the continued allure of the Red Planet leads to novels and films, and it being the most explored planet.
The Gas Giant Jupiter and Its Great Red Spot
Jupiter is our solar system’s most giant planet. And it has a mesmerizing display of colored bands in various pastel reds, oranges, browns, and whites. Among the planet’s colorful features is the Great Red Spot, a colossal testament to Jupiter’s dynamic and colorful nature.
Jupiter’s atmosphere is the key to its striking colors, like the other planets. This gassy world mostly has an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium. But there are traces of ammonia and methane.
The planet’s chemistry and how the gases interact with solar radiation create Jupiter’s colors. Scientists think this gassy world has three cloud layers. Altogether, they span about 44 miles above the planet’s (non-existent) surface. The top cloud most likely forms from ammonia ice. Next, the middle layer has crystals of ammonium hydrosulfide. And the inner layer is probably vapor and water ice.
The thick color bands swirling around the planet most likely come from sulfur and phosphorus plumes. They rise from Jupiter’s warmer interior. Then, the plumes begin swirling through the three layers of clouds. Here’s what happens.
Jupiter has a super fast rotation, spinning on its axis once every ten hours. The rotation causes strong jet streams. And they separate the gas plumes into dark belts that stream through the clouds. In other areas, the plumes create long stretches of brightly colored light zones.
How Do Jupiter’s Storms Stay Red?
On Earth, our solid surface slows winds. But since Jupiter is a gas world, there are dozens of prevailing winds. Some reach top speeds of around 335 miles (539 kilometers) per hour. So, the gas plumes become colorful stormy spots that can stick around for many years.
The most notable Great Red Spot continues raging today and for at least 300 years since humans first observed it. Scientists also recently witnessed three smaller red ovals merge into the Little Red Spot. It’s about half its larger sibling’s size.
Because the Great Red Spot is more extensive than Earth, it is easy to see with a telescope. And it adds to Jupiter’s colorful makeup. It is a dark red hue that comes from atmospheric organic molecules that interact with the Sun’s ultraviolet light.
As discussed above, the dust particles absorb the shorter blue light waves, leaving the red waves to shine. Even though Jupiter’s colorful bands continue evolving, the Great Red Spot has stayed crimson for centuries.
Why Aren’t Earth’s Storms Red Colored?
When you compare storms and weather systems on Jupiter and Earth, you see some similarities. But there are also stark differences. For example, Earth’s storm colors are pale in comparison because of oxygen and water in our atmosphere. So they look white when viewed from space. Check out this view of 2022’s Hurricane Ian taken from the International Space Station. You can see the stormy white clouds over the blue oceans and atmosphere near Belize.
On the other hand, Jupiter’s powerful winds kick up celestial and atmospheric dust. So, the planet’s chemical composition and strong jet streams add to the planet’s color. The reddish-brown and white cloud band wraps around Jupiter. But the east-west winds move in opposing directions and keep the bands separate.
As shown below, compare Earth’s white storm with Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and its swirling bands of brown, blue, and white colors.
The giant storm stays trapped between two powerful jet streams. They keep the storm in place as it rotates at extreme speeds in the opposite rotation of Earth’s hurricanes.
The Juno spacecraft collected data about how the 2,000-mile-deep (~3,200 kilometers) jet streams form. And they believe it’s the ammonia gas plumes traveling up and down in alignment with the jet streams.
Data from Juno shows that the planet’s zones and belts experience a transition 40 miles (65 kilometers) within Jupiter’s innermost water clouds. The belts have brighter microwave light in their shallow depths than the neighboring zones. But deeper levels, beneath the water clouds, have darker depths of color. And that is similar to our oceans.
The Radiant Ringed Beauty: Saturn
Saturn is often called the “Jewel of the Solar System.” And it is a true marvel of color and elegance. The planet’s pale gold hue sets it apart. And while its rings are perhaps its most iconic feature, Saturn’s coloration further elevates its status.
Saturn’s pale gold color primarily stems from its atmospheric composition. It predominantly contains hydrogen and helium, with trace amounts of other elements. This blend of gases influences how sunlight interacts with the planet. The upper layers of Saturn’s atmosphere are rich in reflective ammonia crystals. And they scatter sunlight in such a way that it gives a soft, pale gold tint to the planet’s appearance.
However, Saturn’s magnificent ring system truly steals the show. It comprises billions of individual particles, from tiny grains to massive chunks of ice. And these rings reflect and refract sunlight, creating a colorful interplay. The rings’ color hues vary based on the makeup and size of the particles they contain. The differences make some sections appear icy white while others emit subtle shades of beige or pale blue.
The planetary colors in Saturn’s system are a dance between the planet’s atmosphere and the intricate ballet of its rings. Together, they form a color-filled world.
Saturn’s Rosy Storm
Saturn boasts an enormous spinning vortex at its north pole. And the storm resembles a gigantic rose surrounded by green foliage in the image below. But don’t get too excited because this is a false color image.
That means astronomers used colors to make the image more understandable. The first images from radio astronomers were shades of gray, from the purest white to the purest black. And the shade represented the object’s radio emission intensity. Then, radio astronomers converted the gray shades to color.
- Red areas have the most significant radio emission intensity.
- Orange, yellow, and green have intermediate intensity.
- And blue areas are the image’s least intense.
- Finally, the black spaces within an image indicate areas of no radio emission.
So NASA’s image of Saturn’s north pole storm below red areas indicates low storm clouds. And the green foliage shows high clouds. The Cassini spacecraft used a narrow-angle camera with spectral filters sensitive to near-infrared light wavelengths. And while it makes for an extraordinary photograph, it does not indicate the actual planet’s colors.
Including this picture in a discussion of the colors of planets reminds us that just because we see a NASA or other space agency image, it may be different from how your visible eye would see the color scheme. So, learning how the photo was taken and processed is essential.
The Icy Blue Uranus and The Subtle Sapphire Neptune
Our solar system’s two outermost icy giants are blue-green Uranus and sapphire-blue Neptune. And they are both incredible, colorful planets. When we think about what colors are the planets, these two come right to mind. They look peaceful and serene. But are they? Let’s dive into the unconventional blues of Uranus and Neptune.
Both blue ice giants have atmospheres consisting mainly of atomic helium, molecular hydrogen, and small amounts of methane. The methane absorbs the Sun’s red light waves and reflects blue light for us to see.
So that’s why both planets have varying blue shades. But astronomers think more methane equals a whitish haze, which equals paler blue skies. For example, Uranus has a methane layer that is twice the thickness of Neptune’s. So, it creates more of a dulling cloud haze around the planet. On the other hand, Neptune’s thinner methane layer allows more blue to shine through, giving the planet a deep sapphire blue color.
Hubble View of Uranus’ Atmosphere
You might wonder how scientists know the atmospheric makeup of icy blue planets millions of miles from Earth. And here is one way.
Research teams use false color images to peer into the atmosphere. They see some transparent layers mixed with hazy ones from a mixture of gases. The infrared camera filters on Hubble let the team capture three distinct layers within Uranus’ atmosphere.
Infrared images show a sliver of haze at high altitudes, which you can see by the red color around the planet’s edges. You can only see this thin haze by looking at the disk’s edges. Think of it as looking at the edge of a soap bubble.
Next, you can see a second hazy layer near the bottom of Uranus. It appears as a yellow oval. Finally, the blue color near Uranus’ top shows the deepest layer and a more transparent atmosphere.
Astronomers also processed the image to brighten the planet’s rings. This brightening lets researchers study the ring structure. But without the processing, Uranus’ rings are very dark, like charcoal or black lava.
Neptune’s Methane Atmosphere
Neptune received a weather forecast in August 2023 for the next few Earth-years. NASA and Hubble’s teams say the ice giant should expect more clouds above its methane atmosphere. And that might dull its bright blue planet color.
Researchers on Voyager 2’s team shared the first Neptune images in 1989. They showed close-up views of bright, linear clouds. And since they reflect all of sunlight’s colors, the clouds appear white, similar to Earth’s cirrus clouds.
Neptune is so far from the Sun (3 billion miles / 4.8 billion kilometers) that it only gets about one percent of the radiation we receive on Earth. But even at such an immense distance, solar radiation influences Neptune’s weather by producing cloud cover.
It doesn’t seem likely for the Sun to influence the blue ice giant’s weather when it is so far away. Yet, incredibly, the Sun dictates weather even as it appears in Neptune’s sky as a small star about 1/30th our Moon’s full diameter.
Furthermore, scientists see the Sun’s influence when viewing 30 years of Hubble and Keck telescope observations. The clouds wax and wane on an eleven-year cycle. And that follows the Sun’s cycle of stormy years with increased sunspots and violent outbursts. So even from its vast distance, the Sun’s cycle impacts Neptune’s weather and color.
The Colorful and Distant: Dwarf Planets and Moons
Beyond the traditional roster of solar system planets, a collection of colorful celestial objects is awaiting discovery. Among them are vibrant dwarf planets like Pluto, Eris, and Haumea. And moons like Triton and Europa have surfaces that dazzle with an array of hues.
Pluto was the ninth planet before being reclassified as a dwarf planet. But it boasts a complex palette of reddish-brown and icy blues. Eris is similar in size to Pluto. And it exhibits shades of white with a faint orange tinge. Haumea has an elongated shape and a reflective surface that sparkles in pale shades of gray and white.
Meanwhile, Triton, Neptune’s largest moon, showcases pinkish hues. They are likely from the satellite’s methane ice and nitrogen frost. Then Europa is one of Jupiter’s Galilean moons. And it exhibits a smooth and relatively young surface in varying shades of gray and white.
A combination of factors influences the colors of these celestial bodies. Surface composition plays a pivotal role. For example, different types of minerals and ice interact with solar radiation. Then, they absorb and reflect specific wavelengths of light.
Additionally, geological processes, such as volcanic activity or cryovolcanism, can also shape the colors we observe. Further, the presence of atmospheres or tenuous atmospheres on the dwarf planets can contribute to coloration through scattering and chemical reactions.
Scientists continually unravel the mysteries of these colorful worlds and moons. So, they gain insights into the processes that shape the surfaces of celestial bodies across our solar system. Each color hue tells a story. It’s a narrative of the geological forces, cosmic interactions, and unique compositions that define these dwarf planets and distant moons.
Exoplanets: A Brief Glance at Discovery and Color Challenges
Exoplanets are distant planets that orbit stars beyond our own Sun. They have ignited a revolution in the scientific understanding of the cosmos. Researchers discover exoplanets through methods like transit observations and radial velocity measurements. And as a result, exoplanets have expanded our awareness of planetary diversity and the potential for habitable worlds.
Determining the colors of exoplanets, however, remains an enormous challenge. Unlike our solar system’s planets, these distant worlds are often too faint and distant for direct color observation.
But we know from our familiar planets that many factors influence exoplanet colors.
- The type of host star they orbit
The atmosphere’s chemical composition and thickness may influence exoplanet coloration. Gases and particles in the atmosphere can scatter and absorb light, creating unique color signatures. Additionally, clouds or hazy layers play a role in changing exoplanets’ observed colors.
What Colors Are the Planets? – Exploring with Telescopes
Scientists push the boundaries of techniques to observe and unveil exoplanet details. NASA has about nine space telescopes scanning the universe. And they all work together to learn about exoplanet makeup and estimate the planets’ colors.
First, Earth’s ground-based telescopes found evidence of exoplanets. But scientists needed a closer view. So, they launched space-based telescopes. These space satellites could rise above Earth’s atmospheric noise to start exploring. Each also has its individual mission and abilities.
The telescopes teamed up on one exoplanet, HD189733b, about 64.5 light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula. This exoplanet is a giant Hot Jupiter that rains glass. Sideways! Here is what some telescopes learned about it.
- Hubble – discovered that it is deep blue colored because of the raining glass silicates. This space telescope looks into the past to see light from the early universe. But it also sees faraway galaxies and stars, further than previously observed.
- Chandra – observed its star through X-rays and watched the planet pass in front of its star. The telescope’s X-ray vision lets it look into exploded star remnants. And it even peered towards the edges of the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole.
- Spitzer – measured HD189733b’s temperature and winds. While the telescope roamed the cosmos, it viewed its surroundings in infrared light. And that allowed it to see the structural details of disks in star neighborhoods.
- James Webb – used infrared vision to see into the exoplanet’s atmosphere.
It is fascinating that the exoplanet’s blue coloring doesn’t come from methane in its atmosphere. But instead, it comes from the raining glass silicate.
Two other space telescopes explore exoplanets, Kepler (retired) and TESS. They focus on finding exoplanets through the transit method. They search for small reductions in starlight as a planet crosses (or transits) between the star and the spacecraft. These two find exoplanets, but they don’t look into what color planets are.
The James Webb Space Telescope aims to uncover atmospheric data about HD189733b. It delivered pictures of the exoplanet and its atmosphere in July 2022. But its team hopes to learn about the atmosphere’s composition through Webb data.
The telescope also headed to the seven TRAPPIST-1 Earth-sized worlds. There, it probes the atmosphere for evidence of any gases present. In June 2023, Webb showed that TRAPPIST-1 c has little or no atmosphere. So, that likely means life could not exist on the exoplanet.
And while scientists don’t know exactly what color the rocky planet is, the illustration below gives an approximation. It has a rocky composition based on its size and density. And Webb’s mid-infrared light measurement suggests the hot exoplanet has a thin carbon dioxide atmosphere or a bare rocky surface.
The Connection Between Planet Colors and Atmospheres
Planetary atmospheres paint the canvas of space with an array of breathtaking colors. And while that might sound dreamy and ethereal, the science behind planet colors is fascinating. The atmospheric compositions play pivotal roles in creating the vivid hues of our solar system planets. Let’s explore how it all works.
Scattering, Absorption, and Reflection: How Light Dance
Sunlight interacts with the planetary atmosphere in three fundamental processes: scattering, absorption, and reflection. Each process then contributes to the colors we perceive when observing the planets from afar.
When sunlight enters an atmosphere, it encounters molecules and particles. These tiny components scatter light in all directions. The degree of the scattering amount depends on the wavelength of light and the size of particles. For example the shorter wavelengths, like blue and violet, scatter more easily, creating the blue skies on Earth. We see the reddish hue of sunset lower in the atmosphere, where light doesn’t scatter as easily.
Different gases and particles have specific absorption patterns. These components absorb certain wavelengths of light. The absorbed colors then get subtracted from the incoming sunlight. And the result shows the colors transmitted through or scattered by the atmosphere.
For example, Earth’s oceans absorb light’s longer wavelengths. So, reds and yellows get subtracted from the colors we see. As a result, the seas look blue or green.
Surfaces play a role in the colors we perceive. Some surfaces reflect light more effectively than others, contributing to the overall color palette. For instance, Earth’s vegetation absorbs red and blue wavelengths and reflects green.
Gas and Particle Palette: Creating a Kaleidoscope of Colors
The composition of a planetary atmosphere significantly influences its color. As a result, different gases and particles absorb and scatter light in unique ways. The sizes of particulates and molecules make a difference, too. And all together, these gases and particles create a diverse array of planet colors.
Blue Skies and Red Suns
Earth’s atmosphere is incredibly rich in nitrogen and oxygen. So, it scatters shorter blue wavelengths, giving us our iconic blue skies. Mars has a thin atmosphere primarily composed of carbon dioxide. It absorbs blue light and reflects the longer red wavelengths, partially resulting in the planet’s ruddy appearance.
The other reason Mars appears rusty red is its surface’s large amount of iron oxide. Winds whip the dusty soil into the atmosphere, providing part of the planet’s red hue.
Gas Giants’ Palette
The gas giants, like Jupiter and Saturn, exhibit bands of vibrant colors due to their atmospheric chemistry. Ammonia, methane, and other compounds interact with sunlight. And that produces the multi-hued bands we observe from space.
Both planets have chemical compositions of about 90 percent hydrogen and 10 percent helium. They also have small amounts of water ice and methane. They have stormy surfaces and thick, icy haziness. Occasionally, storms make it to the surfaces of Jupiter and Saturn. Then, you’ll see bright white spots among the colored bands.
Exoplanets with different atmospheres might display even more extraordinary colors. Exoplanets orbiting red dwarf stars could appear more purplish due to the prevalence of red light from their host stars.
And even though we can’t yet visually observe far distant exoplanets, scientists can approximate their colors. They do it by examining the planet’s size, density, and likely composition. Now, with the Webb telescope, astronomers also begin to study exoplanet atmospheres. So we may find other dazzling blue exoplanets whose raining glass turns the world’s exotic hues.
The Artistic and Cultural Significance of Planetary Colors
Beyond the scientific relevance, planetary colors play a role in human history and culture. Mars’ red world sparks our imaginations. And that spark influences art and literature. The colors of the planets inspire humans throughout the generations. It happens more often than you’d realize, so let’s explore how planet colors affect our culture.
Historical and Cultural Symbolism
Humans across cultures assign symbolic and mythological significance to planet color. For example, the “Red Planet” Mars aligns with war and passion in various mythologies. Red coloring has a wide range of symbolic meanings, including (heart) health, war, bravery, anger, and love. Passion threads through each of these items to symbolize the color red.
On the other hand, Earth’s serene blue represents life, fertility, and creation. Even the phrase “true blue” sums up associations with this color. Since blue skies equate to calm and clear, true blue is the calmness leading to truth. And while Uranus and Neptune don’t necessarily have relaxed atmospheres, their blues appear serene.
Ancient cultures often linked different colors to gods, spirits, and natural forces. There are many planet color references in ancient Egyptian artwork. For example, “Horus, the red one” is associated with the Red Planet Mars. Although the Egyptians only knew of the five visible planets, they were essential to their cultural and belief structures.
Colors that Inspire: Art, Literature, and Human Imagination
The colorful planets enchant art and literature. Who hasn’t gazed upon a celestial scene in classical paintings? Angels and the heavens were some of the main images in Renaissance artwork. If you’ve visited almost any art museum, you’re sure to have seen incredible works inspired by the celestial worlds.
Vincent Van Gogh captures our imaginations with his “Starry Night.” And while it isn’t specifically about planet colors, it shows how the night skies move us.
Famed author C.S. Lewis had a love for medieval cosmology. He wasn’t as interested in writing about the scientific views of the planets. But all the characters in Narnia looked up to the heavens at one time or another. And some readers even think that the worlds of Narnia equate to the “seven heavens” of medieval Europeans.
There are also intricate planetary descriptions in poetry throughout history. But you might like this more current short haiku by JPL systems engineer Tracy Drain.
Rusty red surface
Cratered, layered, rocky plains
Someday, we’ll touch Mars.
Shaping Modern Imagination: Media and Pop Culture’s Cosmic Palette
Technology and mass media shape how we view planetary colors. You can follow NASA, JPL, or ESA on Instagram and other social media to see vibrant images of the colors of the planets. What a breath of fresh air into your inbox!
Films and television shows also draw on planet colors to create otherworldly settings that resonate with audiences’ fascination for the unknown. Starting with the dawn of TV, space shows aimed to capture our imaginations. And the imagined worlds viewers visited had vibrant planetary colors and settings.
Star Trek took humans beyond the Milky Way and throughout the universe to visit colorful planets and galaxies. But it wasn’t the first pop culture show to do so. Lost in Space also thrilled humans as a family galavanted around the cosmos.
But more recently, Matt Damon in The Martian captured our imaginations. We saw the main character traipse all over Mars in his search for a way to rescue himself. Media and pop culture use the cosmic palette to entertain us and to shape how we view space exploration.
Final Thoughts on The Colors of Planets
As you gaze at the skies, the colors you see evoke a sense of curiosity and contemplation. They also connect humanity to the cosmos. The colors of the planets remind us that the universe is not just a scientific realm. But it is also a canvas where humans project our dreams, stories, and visions.
Look to the arts and literature to see that planet color has enthralled humans throughout history. And you’ll even find planet colors wrapped into the names we gave them. Greek and Roman mythology seep into the solar system’s planets narrative. Mars got its name from the red blood of war.
Furthermore, exploring the answer to the planets’ colors leads scientists to learn about planet atmospheres and compositions. They study planetary colors to provide crucial insights into the dynamic processes shaping our world.
Each planet has a unique appearance. And it comes through the interplay of gases, particles, and light. In addition, the colors of the planets make themselves known through
Visible light waves interact with each planet’s atmosphere and chemical compositions to shine through space in different colors. And even though Earth, Uranus, and Neptune are all primarily blue, the reasons for the color differ.
Earth experiences Rayleigh scattering. It causes the Sun’s white light to bounce around when hitting particles in our atmosphere. Blue light scatters more easily since it has a short wavelength. But longer wavelengths of light get absorbed. And that means we see fewer reds and yellows.
On the other hand, Uranus and Neptune appear in varying shades of blue due to the methane in their atmospheres. These icy gas giants use methane to absorb red wavelengths. And that leaves the blue-colored wavelengths for our telescopes to observe from space.
You can’t forget the coloration of the recently discovered exoplanet HD189733b. It also appears blue, but that’s because of the thick silicates in its atmosphere. Astronomers say the exoplanet experiences a “raining glass” phenomenon. So the silicate compounds absorb reds and yellows while leaving blue for observers to see.
As we wrap up the journey, let this be an invitation to continue your exploration of the colors of the planets. The universe is a vast tapestry of colors. And each planet’s color teaches us more about the formation and evolution of worlds beyond Earth.