The first image taken in space came from a rocket camera in 1946. Before that, astronomers took black-and-white images of celestial objects using telescopes on Earth.
If you were a kid in the 1960s, you grew up with the first images taken on the moon. Since the 1970s, spacecraft have been visiting the solar system’s distant planets, returning photos of turbulent atmospheres, colourful rings, and bizarre moons.
Here are the best photos of our solar system through the last 12 decades.
For decades, scientists have pointed Earthly lenses toward the sky to capture images of the cosmos. Even the earliest rockets that launched off the planet brought cameras into space.
At first, our photos of the solar system came back grainy, unclear, and colourless. The very first image taken in space, for example, came from a 33mm motion-picture camera that American scientists strapped to a captured German rocket and launched off Earth at the end of World War II. The camera fell back to Earth and shattered, but the film survived.
Other early solar-system images came as NASA and the Soviet Union explored the moon for the first time – people born in the 1950s and 60s grew up with the iconic photos of the first astronauts walking on the moon.
Since then, increasingly sophisticated missions have ventured farther into space with better and better cameras. Kids in the ’80s got the first up-close images of Saturn and Neptune, while children today are accustomed to high-quality colourful shots of the deserts of Mars and swirling clouds of Jupiter.
Here are the best photos of our solar system from the decade you were born.
For centuries, humans could only see the solar system through telescopes. At the dawn of the 20th century, astronomers captured fuzzy, black-and-white images of the planets. This photo of Jupiter was takin in 1906.
Comets were a popular subject for astronomers working with early photography techniques. In 1907, this comet was captured streaking across the night sky.
Saturn and its rings also made for a pretty picture, as in these telescope images from 1916.
Solar eclipses were good fodder for early astronomical photos, too. The solar corona is visible behind the moon in this 1922 image of a total solar eclipse.
Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto using these images on glass plates in 1930. Tombaugh saw Pluto’s movement by blinking the plates back and forth on a machine that compared astronomical images.
Much closer to Earth, a bright eruption of plasma on the sun was captured in this 1931 photograph.
The first photo of Earth from above came from a jerry-rigged rocket. On October 24, 1946, scientists strapped a 33mm motion-picture camera to a captured German V-2 rocket and launched the whole thing into space.
After reaching an altitude of 65 miles, the camera fell back to Earth and shattered, but the film survived.
The Soviet Union launched the space race with its two Sputnik satellites in 1957, though those missions did not return photos. The Soviets did, however, capture the first image of the far side of the moon using the Luna 3 spacecraft in 1959.
Our first photos of Earth from the moon came from NASA’s lunar orbiters in the mid-1960s.
This first image of Earth from lunar orbit languished in storage for decades, since 1960s technology couldn’t fully process the tapes.
The famous “Earthrise” photo revealed an entirely new perspective of Earth. Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders snapped it as his team became the first people to circle the moon in 1968.
When they saw Earth peering over the lunar horizon, the astronauts clamored for cameras.
“The other two guys were yelling at me to give them cameras. I had the only colour camera with a long lens. So I floated a black and white over to [Frank] Borman. I can’t remember what [Jim] Lovell got,” Anders said in an interview for a BBC documentary. “And we started snapping away.”
The decade culminated in the first moon landing. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left their boot prints in the lunar dust on July 20, 1969.
Exploration of the lunar landscape continued into the 1970s.
As the Apollo program ended in 1972, NASA shifted its attention to more distant destinations.
NASA’s Viking orbiter took the first up-close pictures of Mars as it entered the planet’s orbit in 1976.
The next year, NASA launched the twin spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2 to explore the furthest reaches of the solar system and eventually enter interstellar space. In 1979, Voyager 1 approached Jupiter and sent images of the gas giant back to Earth.
For the first time, scientists could see the zones of the planet’s atmosphere up close.
One of Voyager 1’s best shots shows Jupiter’s Great Red Spot along with three of its largest moons.
In 1980, Voyager 1 beamed back the first images of Saturn. As the spacecraft passed the ringed planet, it photographed Saturn’s moons for the first time and led astronomers to discover three moons they hadn’t previously known about.
Since then, astronomers have discovered a total of 82 moons orbiting Saturn. Twenty of those were just found last week.
In 1986, Voyager 2 reached Uranus. It photographed the blue sphere of the planet’s hydrogen and helium atmosphere for the first time.
Voyager 2 launched before Voyager 1, but it passed Jupiter and Saturn after its twin, since Voyager 2 was on a different path toward these outermost planets.
In 1989, Voyager 2 visited Neptune in the cold darkness of the solar system’s distant reaches. It is still the only spacecraft to have visited Uranus and Neptune.
As it approached Neptune, Voyager 2 snapped this unprecedented photo. The spacecraft then went on to follow Voyager 1 out of our solar system, into interstellar space.
Kids born in the 1990s grew up with far more detailed images of some of Jupiter’s moons, thanks to NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. That mission also approached an asteroid for the first time in history and returned photos from a second asteroid encounter, with a space rock called Ida, on August 28, 1993.
In 1996, Galileo returned this otherworldly image of Io, the most volcanic body in the solar system. It’s the highest-resolution photo of this moon of Jupiter’s to date.
Galileo orbited Jupiter and its moons for almost eight years, snapping close-ups like this one, which shows the icy crust of the moon Europa in 1997. The spacecraft discovered that Europa likely conceals a vast global ocean beneath its surface.
By 1999, a space telescope called the European Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) was taking detailed photos of the sun and its plasma eruptions.
The new millennium brought new NASA missions like Cassini, which explored Saturn and its complex system of rings and moons. The probe beamed back this portrait as it approached the planet in May 2004.
Cassini imaged Saturn’s rings like never before as it entered the planet’s orbit in June 2004.
As it swung around Saturn, Cassini also snapped photos of Hyperion — the weirdest-shaped moon in the solar system — in 2005.
Cassini captured this stunning photo of Saturn’s moon Enceladus in 2008. The spacecraft discovered that jets of water and ice shoot into space through cracks in Enceladus’ icy surface.
If you’re nine years old and you’ve read this far, congratulations. The 2010s have featured the most stunning photos of our solar system yet.
The New Horizons spacecraft took the first up-close snapshots of Pluto as it flew by in 2015. The probe launched toward Pluto and the asteroid belt at the edge our solar system in 2006.
Jupiter’s turbulent clouds are still fodder for colourful, dynamic photos. NASA’s Juno mission to study the planet’s atmosphere and structure launched in 2011. It will continue returning photos, like this one from 2017, until it flings itself into the planet to end its mission in 2021.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which entered the red planet’s orbit in 2006, offers bird’s-eye views of the planet’s desert landscapes. This shot of wind-swept formations was taken in September of this year.
The orbiter’s best images have come in the last decade, as scientists zero in on the most interesting places on the Martian surface, such as this field of carbon ice photographed in 2011.
The orbiter even captured this enhanced-colour shot of a freshly formed crater on the Martian surface in 2013.
Of course, there’s no place like home. A growing system of satellites offer detailed images of Earth with increasing accuracy. Even as we expand across the solar system, scientists are still working to understand our home planet.