Spacecraft reveal diversity in solar system’s landscapes

collage of images of planets, moons, comet

OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD LANDSCAPES  The latest generation of interplanetary spacecraft have revealed diverse landscapes on (clockwise from top left) Ceres, Enceladus, Mars, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Pluto and Dione. 

JPL-Caltech/NASA, UCLA, MPS, DLR, IDA; JPL-Caltech/NASA, Space Science Institute; JPL-Caltech/NASA, Univ. of Arizona; NavCam/Rosetta/ESA (CC BY-SA IGO 3.0); NASA, JHUAPL, SWRI; JPL-Caltech/NASA, Space Science Institute

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Over the last several years, spacecraft have beamed back images from all across the solar system, revealing a complex tapestry of landscapes. Dust shapes the scenery on comet 67P, whereas ice rules on Pluto and the moons of Saturn.

At first glance, many of these terrains seem the same — mountains, craters and canyons show up everywhere. But each world adds its own geologic signature that marks the land as utterly alien.

While several of the spacecraft’s missions will end in the coming year, a fleet of new explorers ensures that our interplanetary adventures are far from over.

Cliffs rise about 4 kilometers around the crater Occator on dwarf planet Ceres, as seen in this image taken April 21, 2016, by the Dawn spacecraft. JPL-Caltech/NASA, UCLA, MPS, DLR, IDA
Sunset casts long shadows east of Butes crater on Dione, a moon of Saturn, in this image taken by Cassini on August 17, 2015. The light in the shadows is reflected from Saturn. JPL-Caltech/NASA, Space Science Institute
Cassini also captured cracks and craters that mar the icy surface of Enceladus, another Saturnian moon, in this image from October 14, 2015. JPL-Caltech/NASA, Space Science Institute
The dark highlands of Krun Macula abut the frozen pitted fields of Sputnik Planum on Pluto, this July 14, 2015, image from New Horizons revealed. NASA, JHUAPL, SWRI
A complex layered terrain graces Arabia Terra on Mars, as captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on April 15, 2011. JPL-Caltech/NASA, Univ. of Arizona
The Rosetta spacecraft captured the fine dust blanketing a region named Ash on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in this image from July 18, 2016. NavCam/Rosetta/ESA (CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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