Celestial imagery

PRE-SPACEFLIGHT, man used to be humbled by the sea, but even the ocean pales in comparison with the cosmic wonder and humility inspired by the best photos taken in space. And there are few collections of space photography as beautiful and haunting as Michael Benson’s Planetfall: New Solar System Visions.

It comprises 150 images of planets – our own and those in our solar system – taken by probes and telescopes. The title is a play on landfall, and refers to the first sighting of a planet after a voyage. It’s apt too because even if you’ve seen photos of other planets before, these new ones are so spectacular that it’s like seeing Jupiter, Saturn or Mars for the first time. The planets are captured in breathtaking splendour that will send a shiver up the spine of anyone who has dreamed of space travel.

It’s so easy to access images taken in space on the Internet these days, however, that some might wonder why we need Benson to compile a glorified scrapbook for us.

The truth is that interplanetary photography isn’t quite as straightforward as snapping a shot with a phone.

Probes often take monochromatic photos as they pass a planet, in red, green, then blue, which then need to be combined in order to produce a full-coloured image. Complicating the task is the fact that the probes are moving (40,000 miles per hour in the case of Cassini) and the planets rotating (Jupiter spins more than twice as fast as Earth).

Some pictures, such as those from the Mars Exploration Rovers and Cassini Orbiter, were even snapped in non-visible spectra such as infrared, and require a great deal of interpretation and reconstruction in order to create a comprehensible picture.

Then there’s the jigsaw work. Orbital rovers take tiny photos that need to be pieced together into scenes that give a worthwhile sense of landscape. One of the most impressive mosaics can be found spanning fold-out pages 118-121. It comprises 111 individual shots of Mars that took the Spirit rover four days to capture. All for one awesome alien landscape vista.

All of the detective and interpretive work Benson had to do makes the American filmmaker, writer and photographer as much an artist as a restorer. Some of the photos, such as the Sun on pages 82-83 and the Earth on page 37, are so stunning some may wonder at the extent of Benson’s artistic intervention.

Be assured that his aim was to recreate what the human eye might have seen if those probes and rovers had been manned. No garish false-colour tableaus. No stitching together of unrelated scenes. Just loving – and painstaking – reconstruction.

Benson has relied primarily on images from NASA and European Space Agency missions, all taken within the current millennium.

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