While studying an image of the Milky Way’s largest planet [sic], researcher Michael Benson spotted what looked like a mistake.
The photograph, one of more than 50,000 taken during the unmanned Voyager 1 and 2 probe missions three decades ago, featured a tiny fleck to the right of Jupiter.
Benson said he didn’t think much of it. He figured it was simply a patch of missing data lost in transmission back to Earth.
Yet upon closer examination, Benson came to a startling conclusion. This was no mistake. This was volcano-covered Io, one of 63 moons orbiting Jupiter, rising over the horizon of the massive gas giant planet.
After studying thousands of images from interplanetary probes, Benson, of New York, found the occasional spectacular surprise that offers a special glimpse of the Milky Way galaxy. He included 148 of his favorite color and black-and-white photographs in “Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System,” the latest exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. The temporary exhibit in the museum’s second floor gallery was unveiled to the public Thursday and will remain open through May 2, 2011.
Images of all eight planets are shown, along with images of Earth’s moon and the sun.
The Voyager image showing Jupiter, with Io rising next to it, is featured. Benson found the photo while analyzing NASA images on his computer during research for his pictorial book “Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes” published in 2003.
“I actually felt the hairs rising on my arm,” said Benson, while referring to his Io discovery. “I felt like I was witnessing it myself.”
Many of the gallery photos were buried in NASA databases and never before studied intensely by an independent researcher. Benson, a noted space aficionado, spent hundreds of hours studying images searching for those that best represent what our Milky Way would look like if humans could see it first-hand.
“There is a wider universe out there, he said. “And it is fun to be able to experience it, even if we can’t go there ourselves.”
Many exhibit images were featured in Benson’s 320-page book. But he said the exhibit also features new prints created in Italy that investigate everything from Saturn’s majestic rings to gas-shrouded Venus, where temperatures reach 900 degrees.
“I’d love to have five of these hanging up on my mantle,” Smithsonian project manager Beatrice Mowry said.
Many of the most colorful images are among the most recent, coming courtesy of rovers examining Mars, a planet with many similarities to Earth.
The exhibit features a panorama taken by the Mars Pathfinder Lander in 1997 showcasing the red dust and large rocks along the planet’s surface. Another photo shows a Mars sunset, where the sky turns shades of blue instead of red. The blue tint of the sky is caused by ice clouds, Benson said.
The Mars sunset is one of many galaxy phenomena museum patrons can learn more about, courtesy of Benson’s investigation of the images.
“If kids come in here and they get all excited about it and want to pursue careers in science, that’s brilliant,” Benson said. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this. And if people who are very schooled in art came here and see it belongs to photography, it belongs to the traditions of landscape, then all the better.”
Reach staff writer Brandon Oland at 410-857-7862 or [email protected].