Every planet in our solar system has a unique color scheme, but why is that? In this article, we want to break down what it is that determines whether or not a planet is a particular color. It might seem arbitrary, but there is a scientific explanation for why our planets look the way they look. Even Earth, this humble planet that we inhabit, has an explanation for why it looks the way it does.
We’ll break down every planet and the contributing factors that make them their colors. Many things can contribute to a planet’s coloring, including the gasses in its atmosphere, the amount of moisture in the air or on the planet’s surface, and the elements that make up the planet’s soil. You probably know by now that the way light passes through prisms influences our perception of color – we’ll be discussing how each planet causes light to bounce off of it in a unique way. Let’s get into why planets look the way they do!
What Color Is Mercury?
Mercury, the first planet on our list, is closest to the sun. While it is often depicted as a yellowish desert planet, its color is much closer to that of a slate-gray due to the planet’s surface being covered in what scientists believe to be igneous silicate rocks and dust. While a duller surface than most might’ve anticipated, these rocks still give a distinctive color. This is despite the surface of Mercury being extremely hot. As is, evidence also suggests that there may, in fact, be moisture on Mercury in the form of ice caps.
What Color Is Venus?
There is a common misconception that Venus is a light yellowish color due to its atmosphere being full of sulfur and carbon dioxide. While this certainly tinges the colors we see when looking at Venus from afar, the truth is that Venus’s surface is a rusty, reddish brown.
Venus is the hottest planet in our solar system, thanks to this thick blanket of an atmosphere, which does an excellent job trapping heat. In fact, the estimated temperature is over 900 degrees Fahrenheit – this isn’t a climate zone that anybody would be very comfortable living in.
What Color Is Earth?
This might sound like an easy question (because it is), but Earth is a combination of green, white, and blue. But why is our planet colored the way it is? Well, the green comes from the chlorophyll in just about all the vegetation visible from outer space. However, you might be wondering about the ocean – when you pick up water, it’s clear – so why does it appear blue from a distance?
Like the ice giants we’ll mention later, the ocean absorbs colors in the red part of the light spectrum. Only blue is left when perceiving the ocean, so it appears blue – pretty cool, right?
The white comes from the clouds that layer our skies. Cumulus, stratus, and cirrus are the names of the most common clouds you’ll see; these clouds are mostly water vapor, but plenty of other gasses – and increasingly, particulates – are also found in these clouds.
What Color Is Mars?
Mars is commonly known as the red planet, and for good reason. This is one planet where you likely already knew its color. It is regularly depicted in various media, such as science fiction, fantasy, and more. Mars gets its color from its reddish soil, which is full of iron. When iron is exposed to oxygen, it oxidizes, which causes the corrosive effect you’ve likely seen on metal that isn’t well cared for.
This rusty color is all over Mars because of how much iron there is. This color isn’t affected by the atmosphere, like with Venus, because Mars doesn’t have much of an atmosphere. It’s very, very thin and mostly made of nitrogen. While clouds sometimes appear on Mars, these aren’t the result of moisture – they’re the result of massive dust storms that pop up because of how dry Mars’ soil is.
What Color Is Neptune?
If you’re familiar with our solar system, then you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with Neptune’s color. Named after the Roman god of the ocean, this planet has a deep blue hue reminiscent of our world’s oceans. This blue color is caused by Neptune’s atmosphere of methane absorbing red and infrared light, allowing us only to see blue when gazing upon it.
Now, you might be wondering about Neptune’s surface. Neptune has no solid surface like the other gas planets in the solar system. Instead, it has a deep atmosphere extending downwards and gradually meshes with water. Think of Neptune as a big ball of water surrounded by gas.
What Color Is Saturn?
Saturn has been depicted in many ways over the years, and it is most famous for its large rings surrounding it. These rings are made of bits of ice and rock, but they don’t do anything to affect the color of the gas giant itself. Saturn gets its color from its outer atmosphere.
While this atmosphere is mostly hydrogen and helium, a few other gasses add to its coloring, including phosphene, ammonia, and hydrocarbons. Combining these different elements and compounds results in a yellowish-brown color, which you can observe with a powerful enough telescope.
What Color Is Jupiter?
Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system. You might be familiar with its great red spot, the site of our solar system’s largest and longest storm. Jupiter is another gas giant with red, white, orange, and brown colors. It gets these colors from a combination of elements, compounds, and gasses, chiefly hydrogen, helium, ammonia crystals, and ice crystals.
Similarly to Neptune, Jupiter has no solid surface. It does, however, have a deep and heavy presence in the solar system, and it also has many moons that you can study and examine for yourself.
What Color Is Uranus?
While this has been the setup for many a childish pun, today, we will seriously tackle this question head-on. It was some time before scientists could get a good look at Uranus, but today we have a much better grasp of its color than we did back in the day.
This distant gas giant used to be considered purely blue, but today we understand it as more of a blue-green or cyan. This color is, like Neptune, due to the absorption of red and infrared light by an atmosphere chiefly made of methane.
Uranus and Neptune are the only two ice giants in our solar system, so their makeups are very similar. Like Neptune, Uranus has no solid surface, so even if we came up with a spacecraft capable of traveling to Uranus, it wouldn’t be able to land or explore the planet. Not that there would be much to explore – after all, it’s mostly swirling water and liquid. However, the atmospheric pressure is very high, despite it being the second least-dense planet in the solar system.
What Color Is Pluto?
You might be wondering why we bothered to include Pluto on our list of planetary colors, as it’s been confirmed that Pluto no longer qualifies as a full-fledged planet. While this may be the case, Pluto is still technically a dwarf planet, and a decent subsection of the population will still think of it when you ask them to consider all of the planets in our solar system. Since that’s the case, we figured we might as well go ahead and tell you its color.
Despite its portrayal in the media, science fiction, TV, and film, Pluto is not blue, purple, or any combination thereof. Pluto’s actual color is much more boring. It is a mix of brown, tan, and white. Its rocky surface is covered with sheets of ice, and its atmosphere is made up of water, methane, and nitrogen.
While a methane-stuffed atmosphere might make you think that the [dwarf] planet would be blue like its bigger ice giant siblings Neptune and Uranus, Pluto’s atmosphere is much thinner and doesn’t have a high enough concentration of methane in it to absorb all the red and infrared light coming in. This is why its surface has a slight reddish tinge to it.
Learning the Colors of the Planets With Us
We hope you’ve learned a decent amount about all the colors of the different planets in our solar system and why they look the way they do. Learning about the basic building blocks of the bits of outer space closest to us can be a lot of fun, but many people don’t even know the bare minimum.
We hope we were able to break down this information in a fun and easily understandable way and that you’ll have a few fun facts to bust out at your next social excursion.