Art and Science Converge in “Images of Our Solar System”

VIDEO: Michael Benson discusses the Planetfall exhibit. [Credit: AAAS/Carla Schaffer]

Photographer Michael Benson was interested in space exploration as a child coming of age during the space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union. But, he didn’t pursue this interest until the 1990s, when he became fascinated by images on the Internet from Galileo, the NASA spacecraft orbiting Jupiter.

“I always thought that the photographic output of these missions was significant and potentially a major chapter in the history of photography,” Benson said. “And yet, during the 70s and 80s, you had to be a specialist to really get at this material. Then, with the arrival of the Internet in the 90s, it became much more democratic and non-specialists could access the raw data from the missions.”

Benson’s interest these images eventually led to the development of “Planetfall,” a photo-essay book and exhibit of planetary landscapes. The exhibit officially opened in the AAAS Art Gallery on Wednesday, 27 March with a reception, book-signing and discussion. The event, titled “Images of Our Solar System: Science Meets Art,” featured Benson and Nancy Chabot, a planetary geologist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, both speaking about how they use data from interplanetary probes in their work.

The exhibit and event were organized by AAAS Education and Human Resources and the AAAS Art Committee, with generous support from the NASA Federal Credit Union, the Verizon Foundation and the AAAS Education and Human Resources Flexible Action Fund.

The exhibit demonstrates AAAS’s continued support for art and science programs and what Bob Hirshon, AAAS program director for technology and learning, described as “STEM to STEAM educational initiatives, ‘STEM’ standing for science, technology, engineering and mathematics and the ‘A’ for arts, for the idea that you can blend arts and sciences to the benefit of both.”

“Tonight’s presentation and the Planetfall exhibit allow us to appreciate and celebrate just how lucky we are to live in a time where we can witness these planetscapes as clearly as if we were visiting them ourselves,” Hirshon added.

Composed of 40 massive framed works, including an 8-foot-tall depiction of ground fog on Mars and a cross-section of Saturn’s rings that stretches nearly 9 feet wide, Planetfall includes images from Benson’s new book (Abrams, 2012) as well as his 2003 title, also for Abrams, “Beyond: Visions of Interplanetary Probes.”

Michael Benson

Michael Benson

“Benson’s work is simply stunning and unlike anything that we’ve had in the gallery in recent years,” said Beatrice Schmider, AAAS Art Committee coordinator. “The sheer scale of the images draws people in and depicts a level of detail rarely seen.”

Nancy Chabot

Nancy Chabot

Higher-resolution images from recent NASA missions have allowed Benson to produce sharper pictures than before. “For example, the images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are of such high quality that you can see individual pebbles on the ground,” Benson said. “That particular spacecraft has allowed us to see avalanches even as they happen.”

Interplanetary probes are often directed to take pictures of planets in rows so researchers can later put them together to form a more complete landscape. “I pan for gold in the archives,” he said. “Then I frequently mosaic multiple images together to get these wider views.”

“Some of the work that I do is simply looking for incredible and previously unknown or less publicized sequences of images, and then I work with it in Photoshop and other software to make a seamless, typically color photo which is as close as I can get it to what we believe we would see if we could go ourselves,” Benson said.

During the discussion, Chabot spoke about her work as the lead scientist for the camera system being used on the MESSENGER mission to Mercury. Before MESSENGER, which started orbiting Mercury in March 2011, only one other spacecraft had ever visited the planet. Mariner 10 made multiple fly-bys, the last of which was in 1975.

The images that MESSENGER has produced so far “are beautiful and striking but they’re actually telling us a lot about the different processes that are happening on this planet too,” Chabot said. The surface of Mercury is covered with craters, and “you can tell Mercury had this exciting past of giant things hitting it all the time,” Chabot explained. “If it happened to Mercury, it happened to Earth too.”

Describing the MESSENGER images, Chabot said, “This is a whole other world. This is something we can actually relate to. It’s not that different than the Earth in many things and the Earth experienced similar processes.”

Planetfall will be showing in the AAAS Art Gallery through 28 June. The gallery, located on the first floor of AAAS headquarters at 12th and H Streets NW in Washington, D.C., is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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