black and white planetary photos

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I have a noob question that I haven't been able to figure out from google. Why do all these awesome modern planetary missions only send back black and white photos (amongst their other data)?

The black and white photos are beautiful of course and must be of great scientific value but I was recently looking at the New Horizons site and they say there is enough light on the surface of Pluto for a human to read a book ( I would have thought that if there is that much visible light out that close to the Kuiper Belt surely Cassini should be able to send back true color photos of Saturn's moons? (or from robots on Mars or at least from Messenger of Mercury!?) The recently released Voyager photos of Despina transiting Neptune are in colour and look awesome ( That's decades ago and so far away. Is that false colour?

My question is really why are the sites for today's planetary missions filled with black and white photos if there is a significant amount of visible light out there?

thanks to anyone who can explain this for me :)


Welcome to!

Most of the images you see are color! The fact is that most of the objects in the solar system are pretty much black and white. The moon, Mercury. most asteroids and moons, etc. There is some color, but it is so subtle, to our eye it basically looks black and white. Of course the Earth, Mars and the Gas Giants are an exception, along with a few moons like Titan, Triton...I can't think of any other moons with much color off the top of my head. I'm sure there are a few others, but not many. Saturn's rings are dust and ice; not much color.

So most likely more of the images you see are in color than you think.

Pluto will most likely turn out to look black and white as well.

Certainly some images are taken in a single bandwidth, but not a lot I suspect. That's why it always pays to read the captions with such images; they usually (though not always) give some detail about what kind of an image it is. :)


Wayne has it right.

The majority of solid solar system bodies look very monochromatic to the human eye. Mercury & the Moon are good examples of this.

A few of the moons are rather more colourful, as Wayne says like Titan, Triton, Io, etc.

In fact the modern probes have fantastic colour vision & also what is wirth remembering is that many filters operate well beyond the human optical range, mostly IR with some UV at each end.

A few colour mugshots below.

Saturn moon Iapetus below. Cassini Spacecraft.

Titan & the limb of Saturn. Cassini Spacecraft.

Io Galileo Spacecraft.

70 KM wide lava lake Tupan Patera on Io. Galileo Spacecraft.

Frost on Mars. Phoenix Mars Lander.

Looking due north. Phoenix Mars Lander.

Looking due south. Phoenix Mars Lander.

Large boulder, hills & flat topped rock. Phoenix Mars Lander.

Von Braun & Goddard. MER A Spirit.

Hills in the distance. MER A Spirit.

Andrew Brown.


Thanks Wayne for spelling that out for me and thanks Andrew for the colourful mugshots :)

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