Unique Solar System Views from NASA Sun-Studying Missions

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Solar Orbiter

ESA and NASA’s Solar Orbiter took this image of Venus, Earth, Mars, and Uranus on Nov. 18, 2020.Credits: ESA/NASA/NRL/Solar Orbiter/SolOHI

A closer look by the Solar Orbiter team — prompted by sharp-eyed citizen scientists — revealed that a fourth planet, Uranus, is also visible in Solar Orbiter’s images from Nov. 18, 2020.

Though they focus on the star at the center of our solar system, three of NASA’s Sun-watching spacecraft have captured unique views of the planets throughout the last several months. Using instruments that look not at the Sun itself, but at the constant outflow of solar material from the Sun, the missions — ESA and NASA’s Solar Orbiter, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, and NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory — have sent home images from their distinct vantage points across the inner solar system.

All three missions carry instruments to study the Sun and its influence on space, including cameras that look out the sides of the spacecraft to study the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the solar wind, and the dust in the inner solar system. It’s these instruments that, at various points in 2020, saw several planets pass through their fields of view.

Each of the three missions has a distinct orbit, so their perspectives are different from both ours here on Earth and from each other. This is reflected in each spacecraft’s view of the planets, which show the bodies in different positions than what would have been seen from Earth and from the other spacecraft on those dates.

Parker Solar Probe

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe saw almost all the solar system’s planets in a pair of images captured on June 7, 2020. Click and drag the slider to see a labeled (left) and unlabeled (right) version of the image.
Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Laboratory/Guillermo Stenborg and Brendan Gallagher

As Parker Solar Probe wheeled around the Sun on June 7, 2020, its Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe instrument, or WISPR, snapped two image frames that captured six of our solar system’s planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

WISPR captures images of the solar corona and inner heliosphere in visible light, along with images of the solar wind and other structures as they approach and pass the spacecraft. The spacecraft was approximately 11.6 million miles (18.7 million kilometers) from the Sun, and about 98.3 million miles (158 million kilometers) from Earth, when WISPR gathered the images.

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