We've Landed on 8 Alien Worlds So Far - Here's What They Look Like
Last Updated: November 8, 2023
On October 4 1957, the very first spacecraft, Sputnik 1, was sent to space. Since then, Space Agencies around the world have sent hundreds of crewed and uncrewed spacecraft into space.
Crewed missions have primarily focused on near-Earth locations such as Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS). On the other hand, uncrewed missions have taken spacecraft to far-reaching destinations within our solar system.
These missions have aimed to study planets, moons, asteroids, comets, and other celestial bodies, advancing our understanding of the cosmos. Some notable examples of these missions include the Voyager spacecraft, which explored the outer planets and is now venturing into interstellar space, and the Mars rovers (such as Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity) which have been exploring the surface of Mars.
Some of those missions incorporated landers with cameras attached to them, which, for space enthusiasts like me, have been an absolute blessing. Witnessing the captivating images of otherworldly surfaces has left me in awe every time, and thus, with this article I wanted to share with you every world where we have successfully captured a glimpse of its surface.
Venus (Inner Planet)
Venus, often referred to as Earth’s “sister planet,” has a fascinating and enigmatic surface. Despite its proximity to us, Venus remains a challenging world to study due to its thick atmosphere, extreme temperatures, and relentless atmospheric pressure.
In 1982, the Soviet Venera 13 lander returned the first color images of Venus’ surface. These images depicted a rugged terrain covered in dark rocks and a yellowish sky. Regrettably, the lander’s survival was brief due to the unforgiving conditions on the scorching hot surface of this world, resulting in a limited collection of pictures thus far.
Bennu is a near-Earth object (NEO), specifically an Apollo-group asteroid discovered by the LINEAR Project on September 11, 1999. It’s named after the ancient Egyptian deity Bennu, a bird associated with the Sun, creation, and rebirth.
This massive space rock has a diameter of approximately 490 meters (about the height of the Empire State Building). It’s a B-type asteroid, which means it’s rich in carbon and contains a lot of organic material and water-bearing minerals.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission aimed to study Bennu in detail, retrieve a sample from its surface, and return it to Earth. The spacecraft was equipped with the OCAMS (OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite): a suite of three cameras designed and built at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. These cameras captured images of Bennu at different phases of the mission.
Like Bennu, Ryugu is a near-Earth object and a potentially hazardous asteroid belonging to the Apollo group. That’s because its orbit intersects with Earth’s orbit. This diamond-shaped asteroid is named after Ryugu, the underwater dragon palace from a Japanese folktale.
Ryugu was visited by the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2 in 2018-2019. The mission was designed to gather data on Ryugu’s physical properties, surface, and interior composition. Importantly, Hayabusa2 was also tasked to collect samples from Ryugu’s surface and bring them back to Earth for further analysis.
Some images of the asteroid’s surface were taken by the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT) which was a shoebox-sized lander weighing about 10 kilograms and equipped with a few instruments.
25143 Itokawa (asteroid)
Asteroid 25143 Itokawa is a near-Earth object belonging to the Apollo group. It was discovered in 1998 by the LINEAR project. The asteroid was named after Hideo Itokawa, a pioneer of Japanese rocketry. Itokawa is an S-type asteroid, meaning it is composed primarily of silicate minerals.
The discovery of Itokawa goes back to 1998, credited to the LINEAR project, a group of sky-gazing scientists dedicated to finding and tracking near-Earth asteroids. They decided to name this asteroid after Hideo Itokawa, a trailblazer of Japanese rocketry, who left an indelible mark on the field.
And you know what makes Itokawa really interesting? It’s classified as an S-type asteroid. This means it’s primarily made up of silicate minerals – the same stuff that makes up much of Earth’s crust. So while it might be cruising around in space, its composition isn’t all that alien to us.
The Hayabusa spacecraft was sent by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to explore Itokawa. The mission was launched in May 2003 and arrived at the asteroid in September 2005. The spacecraft was designed to study the asteroid and bring a sample back to Earth.
The small probe was equipped with the Asteroid Multi-band Imaging Camera (AMICA) which took several pictures of the Itokawa’s surface during the sampling procedures. It’s worth noting that Hayabusa was a pioneering mission in many respects. It was the first to successfully land on and take off from an asteroid, the first to collect a sample from an asteroid, and the first to return such a sample to Earth.
433 Eros (asteroid)
Asteroid 433 Eros is a near-Earth asteroid that is named after Eros, the Greek god of love. It is an S-type asteroid, meaning it is composed mainly of silicate (rocky) material and nickel-iron. Eros was discovered on August 13, 1898, by Gustav Witt in Berlin and Auguste Charlois in Nice.
Eros is notable for being the first asteroid to be orbited and landed upon by a spacecraft. This was achieved by NASA’s Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) Shoemaker spacecraft. NEAR studied Eros from orbit for nearly a year, gathering valuable data about its composition, structure, and geology.
The mission was originally only designed for orbital study, but at the end of the mission, a risky decision was made to attempt a landing. On February 12, 2001, NEAR Shoemaker successfully touched down on the surface of Eros, becoming the first spacecraft to land on an asteroid.
Mars (Inner Planet)
Mars exploration has progressed from early telescope observations and the first successful flyby by Mariner 4 in 1965 to sophisticated orbiters, landers, and rovers that analyze the Martian environment in great detail.
Notably, the Viking missions in the 1970s searched for life, the Pathfinder mission deployed the first rover in 1997, and the Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers throughout the 2000s and 2010s significantly advanced our knowledge about the planet’s past potential for water and life.
Recently, NASA’s Perseverance rover and its companion helicopter, Ingenuity, have been exploring The Red Planet since 2021, conducting astrobiological research, and demonstrating powered flight under Martian conditions.
67 P/C-G (comet)
The landing on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P/C-G) was a historic achievement of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission, which successfully deployed the Philae lander onto the comet’s surface on November 12, 2014. This event marked the first time a spacecraft had soft-landed on a comet.
Rosetta, the orbiter, was equipped with an advanced camera system known as the OSIRIS (Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System). OSIRIS consisted of a narrow-angle camera (NAC) and a wide-angle camera (WAC). The NAC was used for detailed imaging of specific areas on the comet, while the WAC captured broader overviews.
Rosetta took high-resolution images of the comet’s surface from various distances and angles as it orbited 67P/C-G. The spacecraft was able to capture intricate details of the comet’s topography, including cliffs, boulders, and dust-covered plains.
Capturing images of a comet’s surface in such detail was a groundbreaking achievement: When comets get close to the Sun, the rising temperature and increased exposition to solar winds mean that the comet will start emitting a lot more gas and dust.
Combined with the challenges of navigating and maintaining a stable orbit around a relatively small celestial body, it’s remarkable that Rosetta was able to capture such clear and detailed images.
Titan (Saturn’s moon)
The Huygens craft represents a landmark achievement, achieving the first-ever landing on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, and setting the record for the most distant landing from our planet. This historic venture was part of the Cassini–Huygens endeavor, a joint operation by NASA, ESA, and ASI.
On Christmas Day 2004, Huygens commenced its solo journey, detaching from Cassini and descending upon Titan, alighting in the Adiri region on January 14, 2005. Equipped with the sophisticated Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer (DISR), the craft captured imagery and conducted spectral analysis during its descent and brief tenure on Titan’s surface, relaying valuable data back to Earth for an hour and a half post-landing.
The space probe derives its name from Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch astronomer credited with Titan’s discovery in the mid-17th century.
I’ve been fascinated by space and astronomy from a very young age. When I’m not watching space-themed documentaries, movies or TV series, I spend most of my free time in my backyard admiring the planets and galaxies with my telescope.
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