For centuries, most of our visual understanding of our own solar system has come by way of offerings from the scientific fields. Rarely have the sun and its planets been appreciated as art.
In the mid 1990s, artist Michael Benson set out to change that, using the Internet as a "personal space exploration" of thousands of single-frame images taken by unmanned spacecraft over the last 50 years. Benson hoped to expose them for their beauty and depth, not necessarily just what they could reveal about science.
Tomorrow, May 26, visitors to the National Air and Space Museum can view the finished products of Benson's labors in Beyond: Visions of Planetary Landscapes, an exhibition of 148 photographs Benson culled and created with images from unmanned interplanetary probes, offering a bold visual tour of space.
"I began to realize that the legacy of space missions belonged to photography as much as to science," he said. "We're living in an era where science and art are coming back together.”
When compiling the project, Benson used the archives at NASA, the European Space Agency, and other organizations—which are largely open and available to the public online—to select the most striking images of each of the plants, their suns and their moons. He began to restore and reprocess them. Many of the images he found were only fragments of a larger picture, which meant he had to find several images and piece them together like a puzzle, he said.
Some of the images in the exhibit were first published in the 2003 book, Beyond:Visions of the Interplanetary Probes. But many in the exhibit, which span 50 years of space exploration, reflect new work, too.
One of the oldest images, dating to the 1960s, is a stunning photo of the earth and the moon in the same frame (the first photograph on record of both as full spheres.) All of the original slides were in black and white, but for many, Benson dug into the images' data to restore and reveal color for the first time. An image of Uranus radiates a robin's egg blue; an image of the sun shows fiery shades of red and orange.
But Benson's favorite? A beautifully eerie black and white depiction of Europa, Jupiter's fourth-largest moon, offset by the Great Red Spot, a cyclonic storm system twice the size of the Earth that seems to explode behind it.
"It's beautiful," he said of the artwork. "I think it is the single most enigmatic object in the solar system."
See all of the images at the museum this week, and don't be surprised if it's hard to pick a favorite.
"Beyond: Visions of Planetary Landscapes" is on view from May 26 to May 2, 2011 at the National Air and Space Museum, 6th and Independence Avenue S.W., Washington, D.C.