As the star at the center of the Solar System, the Sun holds a lot of our attention. Many missions are currently getting up close and personal with our star – last year provided some of the most spectacular images of the Sun ever seen – but every so often the "eyes" of these spacecraft turn back to Earth and offer a view of our planet we rarely get to see.
Three Sun-studying missions – NASA and ESA’s Solar Orbitor, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, and NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) – have done just that, capturing our planet, alongside some of our closest neighbors, from their unique vantage points across the inner Solar System.
All three of these missions have a distinct orbit so their perspectives are very different not just from what we see on Earth, but each other. The Solar Orbitor's Heliospheric Imager caught this exquisite view of Venus, Earth, and Mars on November 18, 2020, from about 251 million kilometers (155.7 million miles) away from Earth.
Venus is the brightest planet here, roughly 48 million kilometers (29.8 million miles) away from the Solar Orbitor at that time. The spacecraft, which was only launched in February 2020, was on its way to Venus for its first gravity assist flyby, which occurred on December 27. Using the planet's gravity helps alter the spacecraft's orbit and get it closer to the Sun. The Sun is out of frame but you can see its light shining away to the right of Earth and Mars.
The Parker Solar Probe's Wide-field Imager for Solar PRobe (WISPR) took this incredible portrait (below) while it was making its closest approach to the Sun on June 7, 2020.
WISPR's job is to take images of the solar corona and inner heliosphere, which it was doing during its perihelion, or closest approach, of its orbit around the Sun when its field of view swept away from the Sun and to the planets beyond. From left to right you can see Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, Venus, Earth, and Mercury, which of course appear in the wrong order from the Sun. Mercury, the innermost planet appears the furthest away.
"We often think of viewing our Solar System from the outside in, and this allows us the unique opportunity to see it from the inside out," said Parker Solar Probe project scientist Nour Raouafi. "It’s a view few spacecraft can provide, and Parker Solar Probe has given us an entirely different perspective on our place in space.”
Also on June 7, NASA's STEREO captured this view of most of our Solar System's planets. Because of its position in orbit, however, it shows a very different perspective to the Parker Solar Probe. This time our neighbors appear in the more familiar order.
The Heliospheric Imagers on STEREO focuses on the Sun's outer atmosphere, the solar corona and winds, allowing scientists to study how material from the Sun travels out into the Solar System. According to NASA: "The dark columns in the image are related to saturation on the instrument’s detector, caused by the brightness of the planets combined with the long exposure time."
If you want to feel really small, check out this incredible photo of a small, insignificant blue planet snapped by Voyager over 30 years ago.