Skip to main content

Go on a ‘Grand Tour’ of the outer solar system with these Hubble images

The planets in our solar system aren’t static. Like Earth, the other planets also experience seasonal variations with atmospheric changes occurring throughout the year. That’s why each year the Hubble Space Telescope snaps images of the outer planets of our solar system — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — so astronomers can see how they are changing over time.

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has completed its annual grand tour of the outer Solar System for 2021. This is the realm of the giant planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — extending as far as 30 times the distance between Earth and the Sun. Unlike the rocky terrestrial planets like Earth and Mars that huddle close to the Sun’s warmth, these far-flung worlds are mostly composed of chilly gaseous soups of hydrogen, helium, ammonia, and methane around a packed, intensely hot, compact core. Note: The planets are not shown to scale in this image.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has completed its annual grand tour of the outer Solar System for 2021. Note: The planets are not shown to scale in this image. Image used with permission by copyright holder

The images of this year’s “Grand Tour” of the outer solar system have just been released and they show the gas giants and ice giants which are so different from the inner, rocky planets of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. These outer planets are much larger, and because they are so much further from the sun — the farthest, Neptune, orbits at a distance 30 times the distance between Earth and the sun — they are also extremely cold. They are composed of different materials too, being made up of what the European Space Agency describes as, “chilly gaseous soups of hydrogen, helium, ammonia, methane, and other trace gases around a packed, intensely hot, compact core.”

This year’s images show the ever-changing atmosphere of Jupiter, in which new storms regularly appear and form shapes called barges. Another feature shown in the image is the “Red Spot Jr.,” a smaller spot that has appeared beneath Jupiter’s famous Great Red Spot.

“Every time we get new data down, the image quality and detail in the cloud features always blow me away,” said Amy Simon of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It strikes me when I look at Jupiter, in the barges or in the red band right below, you can see cloud structures that are clearly much deeper. We’re seeing a lot of structure here and vertical depth variation.”

Saturn is approaching autumn in its northern hemisphere, where there are color changes in its bands, and in the southern hemisphere, you can see the remnants of winter in the blue color around the planet’s southern pole.

“This is something we can best do with Hubble. With Hubble’s high resolution, we can narrow things down to which band is actually changing,” said Michael Wong of the University of California, Berkeley. “If you were to look at this through a ground-based telescope, there’s some blurring with our atmosphere, and you’ll lose some of those color variations. Nothing from the ground will get visible-light images as sharp as Hubble’s.”

Finally, Uranus and Neptune show changes too, with the bright northern pole of Neptune caused by ultraviolet radiation and a darkened northern hemisphere of Uranus and a dark spot that moves around the planet.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Hubble captures the dramatic jets of a baby star
FS Tau is a multi-star system made up of FS Tau A, the bright star-like object near the middle of the image, and FS Tau B (Haro 6-5B), the bright object to the far right that is partially obscured by a dark, vertical lane of dust. The young objects are surrounded by softly illuminated gas and dust of this stellar nursery. The system is only about 2.8 million years old, very young for a star system. Our Sun, by contrast, is about 4.6 billion years old.

A new image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the drama that unfolds as a new star is born. Within a swirling cloud of dust and gas, a newly formed star is giving off powerful jets that blast away material and cut through the nearby dust of the surrounding nebula to create this stunning vista.

The image shows a system called FS Tau, located 450 light-years away in a region called Taurus-Auriga. Within this region are many stellar nurseries with new stars forming, making it a favorite target for astronomers studying star formation. But this particular system stands out for the dramatic nature of its newborn star, which has formed an epic structure called a Herbig-Haro object.

Read more
Hubble images the spooky Spider Galaxy
This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the irregular galaxy UGC 5829.

This week's image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows an irregular galaxy, the spindly arms and clawed shape of which has led to it being named the Spider Galaxy. Located 30 million light-years away, the galaxy also known as UGC 5829 is an irregular galaxy that lacks the clear, orderly arms seen in spiral galaxies like the Milky Way.

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the irregular galaxy UGC 5829. ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Tully, M. Messa

Read more
Asimov’s vision of harvesting solar power from space could become a reality
Simplified diagram of space solar power concept..

It's an idea straight out of science fiction: A space station orbits around Earth, harvesting energy from the sun and beaming it down to our planet. Isaac Asimov popularized the concept in his 1941 story Reason, and futurists have been dreaming about it ever since.

But this notion is more than just an idle fantasy -- it's a highly practical concept being pursued by space agencies across the world, and it's almost within reach of current technologies. It could even be the solution to the energy crisis here on Earth.

Read more