Smithsonian exhibit launches at College of Central Florida in Ocala


Age after age, we’ve looked to the heavens and wondered what’s out there.

About all we’re certain of is this: We are definitely NOT alone. And now, we’ve got the pictures to prove it.

Fact is, some of the best pictures are on display until mid-September in the Webber Gallery at the College of Central Florida in Ocala. The display is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, and admission is free.

The nearly 60 photos of our planetary neighbors in the “Beyond: Visions of Planetary Landscapes” traveling Smithsonian exhibit were painstakingly assembled by artist and filmmaker Michael Benson.

All of the images were taken by the Voyager, Viking, Mars Rovers, Galileo and other camera-laden, deep-space probes we’ve been sending out into the cosmos since the 1960s; they were then beamed back to NASA and the European Space Agency.

“We’re very fortunate to have this exhibit here at the Webber,” says Michele Faulconer, gallery coordinator of the Webber. “It’s informative and educational as well as beautiful.”

“We’re being educated on the functions of the universe,” she adds, “and being that we don’t have a planetarium in our midst in this area, it’s nice to be able to host this exhibit. It’s a nice thing to do with the kids on a rainy afternoon.”

Since its debut in 2008, the display has been making the rounds of the country: Tucson, Cleveland, Chicago. It came to Ocala from Petaluma, Calif., and travels to Montezuma, Kan., after it closes here on Sept. 18.

The photos now on the Webber’s walls include a roiling sun in a mind-searing scarlet taken in 1999, along with the planets of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Another shows a cold, pastel-blue Uranus amid a sable void is haunting.

Some of the images display the magnitude of planetary size, particularly photos of Jupiter and Saturn’s moons; they’re miniscule against the face of their planets.

But what’s amazing is most of these images were captured by tiny machines whizzing by the planets at as much as 35,000 miles per hour.

Benson notes that speed “is a good deal faster than a rifle bullet,” according to the exhibit’s website. He explains that he scoured through thousands of photos sent back by the probes for each image, assembling a mosaic that could then be digitally colored and processed into the photos in this exhibit. He also displays the images in a series of “Beyond” books.

“Many of these pictures were retrieved by Benson from deep archives containing tens or even hundreds of thousands of images sent to Earth by five decades of space-probe missions; many have never been seen by the public before,” the website notes.

Benson’s goal was to locate, digitally process and print some of the most extraordinary sights ever captured, according to promotional materials. “I view the photographic legacy of these missions as being a chapter in the history of photography,” he said.

In a May, 2010 interview with NPR, he adds: “I realized those images belonged to photography as much as to science.”

“Space exploration is occurring at a dizzying pace. The technology to send robotic craft into the solar system to visit the known and unknown is amazing,” noted Ken Nash, an adjunct professor at CF. “Equally impressive is the communications and computer connections to retrieve, display and analyze the images and information.”

This could be particularly important as much of our endeavors to explore space, both near and far, are severely limited with the recent ending of the space shuttle program.

Meanwhile, we the Earthbound continue to be mesmerized by the heavens.Yet, who hasn’t looked up on a clear night to admire the array of celestial jewelry? With the exhibit, viewers don’t have to crick their necks, and there is a much-closer view.

As part of the exhibit, a special “Starry Skies” family night runs 7 to 10 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 10. Folks from Ocala’s Discovery Center will be on hand with telescopes for an evening of star gazing and other hands-on activities inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s famous “Starry Night” painting.

A few days later, on Sept. 14, Dr. David Atkinson, a senior research scientist from the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Ocala, offers a lecture on the future of NASA.

“From an artist’s perspective, these photos are incredible,” Faulconer says. “The images are captured by satellite; they’re not out there with the ability to frame the picture like your eye would.

“It just shows you,” she adds, “where our technology’s come to.”

Contact Rick Allen at [email protected].

Age after age, we’ve looked to the heavens and wondered what’s out there.

Copyright © 2011 — All rights reserved. Restricted use only.

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