After half a century exploring the solar system with robot spacecraft, we may not have discovered life, but we have found beauty. That was not the original intent, of course. The first spacecraft dispatched to the outer solar system, Pioneers 10 and 11, didn’t even carry proper cameras. But if aesthetics was never our purpose, all of us have benefitted from the remarkable pictures returned by the likes of Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and Cassini.
In his handsome 2003 book, Beyond, New York-based writer, filmmaker, and photographer Michael Benson showcased some of the best of these images, which will be on display in a year-long exhibition opening this month at the National Air and Space Museum. Called “Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System,” the exhibit features 148 high-resolution planetary photographs, many of them assembled from individual frames into large mosaics for the first time.
Benson sifted through thousands of photographs dating back to the 1960s, looking for scenes of grandeur and intricate detail, from the rings of Saturn to the dunes of Mars. Aside from their visual appeal, the selection serves as a good guide to the past 50 years of planetary exploration. See the gallery at right for a sample of images from the exhibit, which opens May 26.
Note: Michael Benson will be signing copies of his books at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. on May 29.
Jupiter and Europa
A multiframe mosaic from Voyager 1, taken on March 3, 1979, shows Jupiter's moon Europa to the right of the planet's Great Red Spot.
West Chandor Chasma, Mars
Multi-frame mosaic of West Chandor Chasma in the Valles Marinaris canyon system on Mars. Taken by the Viking Orbiter, August 17, 1976.
Saturn North Pole
Cassini view from above Saturn's north pole, January 20, 2007.
Hebes Chasma, Mars
Mars Express captured this image of Hebes Chasma, a trough in the Grand Canyon of Mars, Valles Marineris, on September 16, 2005.
Tusholi Corona, La Fayette crater, and Tethus Regio, east of Ishtar, Venus. Radar images taken by Magellan, September 15, 1990 to September 14, 1992.
Saturn South Pole
In one of the more ominous images ever taken of Saturn, the planet’s south pole extends toward the viewer, as the rings disappear into shadow. Cassini, June 23, 2008.
Dunes on Mars
Defrosting dunes in the north polar region of Mars, as seen by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, January 28, 2008.
South Africa as seen from the OrbView 2 satellite in Earth orbit, August 18, 1999.
Neptune and Triton
Neptune and its moon Triton, Voyager 2, August 31, 1989.
Global Dust Storm
A global dust storm on Mars, as seen by the Viking 2 Orbiter, February 19, 1977.
Jupiter and Io
Io rising over Jupiter's night side—a multiframe mosaic from Voyager 1, February 24, 1979.
Jupiter with crescent Io, as viewed by Cassini, January 15, 2001.
Author Michael Benson helps to set up the new National Air and Space Museum exhibition, Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System, opening in May 2010.