Editor's Pick

Photography On The Final Frontier

Michael Benson — writer, filmmaker and photographer — was fascinated when, in the late 1990s, NASA started posting images from space online.

"I realized those images belonged to photography as much as to science," Benson said on the phone.

It was then that he began a project that continues today: He sifts through thousands of images taken by unmanned interplanetary probes looking for hidden gems — beautiful images of space that are more like works of art. Benson refines the pictures, adjusting contrast and cleaning up seams, and, in some cases, he pieces multiple images together to create large-scale mosaics.

  • An Erupting ProminenceProminences are huge clouds of relatively cool, dense plasma suspended in the sun's hot, thin corona. They can sometimes erupt and escape the sun's atmosphere. Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, Jan. 18, 2000.
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    An Erupting ProminenceProminences are huge clouds of relatively cool, dense plasma suspended in the sun's hot, thin corona. They can sometimes erupt and escape the sun's atmosphere. Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, Jan. 18, 2000.
    Michael Benson
  • Europa And The Great Red SpotJupiter's moon Europa (upper right) is slightly smaller than Earth's moon. To the left is Jupiter's Great Red Spot, a vast cyclonic storm system about two times the size of Earth. Mosaic compiled of multiple images. Voyager 1, March 3, 1979.
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    Europa And The Great Red SpotJupiter's moon Europa (upper right) is slightly smaller than Earth's moon. To the left is Jupiter's Great Red Spot, a vast cyclonic storm system about two times the size of Earth. Mosaic compiled of multiple images. Voyager 1, March 3, 1979.
    Michael Benson
  • The View Of Basin To The Northeast Of Husband Hill On MarsThis view of Mars was captured by the Spirit rover, which has been roaming Mars and sending back photos and data samples since 2004. In this shot, basaltic plains stretch to the distant rim of Thira Crater. Mosaic compiled of multiple images. Spirit Rover, Nov. 3, 2005.
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    The View Of Basin To The Northeast Of Husband Hill On MarsThis view of Mars was captured by the Spirit rover, which has been roaming Mars and sending back photos and data samples since 2004. In this shot, basaltic plains stretch to the distant rim of Thira Crater. Mosaic compiled of multiple images. Spirit Rover, Nov. 3, 2005.
    Michael Benson
  • Southern Spring On MarsAt a certain time of the Martian year, a large fraction of the planet's atmosphere evaporates from the southern polar cap and migrates to the northern polar cap. Clouds are visible at the north polar cap and at the planetary horizon to the right. European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft, Feb. 24, 2007.
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    Southern Spring On MarsAt a certain time of the Martian year, a large fraction of the planet's atmosphere evaporates from the southern polar cap and migrates to the northern polar cap. Clouds are visible at the north polar cap and at the planetary horizon to the right. European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft, Feb. 24, 2007.
    Michael Benson
  • The Great LakesThe Great Lakes contain about 22 percent of the Earth's supply of fresh water. In this eastward view, the East Coast of the United States can be seen, including Long Island and Cape Cod to the right. OrbView-2 commercial satellite, April 24, 1999.
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    The Great LakesThe Great Lakes contain about 22 percent of the Earth's supply of fresh water. In this eastward view, the East Coast of the United States can be seen, including Long Island and Cape Cod to the right. OrbView-2 commercial satellite, April 24, 1999.
    Michael Benson
  • The Crescent EarthReflected sunlight glows through the clouds over the far South Pacific, where part of South America and Antarctica are visible. This image was taken from 217,500 miles away, or almost the distance to the moon. Rosetta, Nov. 13, 2009
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    The Crescent EarthReflected sunlight glows through the clouds over the far South Pacific, where part of South America and Antarctica are visible. This image was taken from 217,500 miles away, or almost the distance to the moon. Rosetta, Nov. 13, 2009
    Michael Benson
  • Mare Oriental The moon's vast Mare Orientale impact crater is 200 miles wide, one of the largest in the solar system. The outermost circle of the crater is the Cordillera Mountain scarp, a line of cliffs about 560 miles wide. At 3.5 miles high in places, these are the highest mountains on the moon. Lunar Orbiter 5, Aug. 18, 1967.
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    Mare Oriental The moon's vast Mare Orientale impact crater is 200 miles wide, one of the largest in the solar system. The outermost circle of the crater is the Cordillera Mountain scarp, a line of cliffs about 560 miles wide. At 3.5 miles high in places, these are the highest mountains on the moon. Lunar Orbiter 5, Aug. 18, 1967.
    Michael Benson
  • An Ice-Covered Ocean Faults and curving ridges cover the face of Jupiter's moon Europa, one of the most tantalizingly enigmatic worlds in the solar system. Europa almost certainly has a vast, ice-capped global ocean kept warm by the gravitational effects of Jupiter and its moons, and perhaps by volcanoes on the hidden seafloor. Europa may have enough heat, water and organic material for ...
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    An Ice-Covered Ocean Faults and curving ridges cover the face of Jupiter's moon Europa, one of the most tantalizingly enigmatic worlds in the solar system. Europa almost certainly has a vast, ice-capped global ocean kept warm by the gravitational effects of Jupiter and its moons, and perhaps by volcanoes on the hidden seafloor. Europa may have enough heat, water and organic material for life to have evolved here. Multiframe mosaic, Galileo, March 29, 1998.
    Michael Benson
  • Erupting Into Space An 86-mile-high volcanic plume explodes above the horizon of Jupiter's moon Io. The plume is erupting over a caldera (volcanic depression), named Pillan Patera, after a South American god of thunder, fire and volcanoes. Galileo, June 28, 1997.
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    Erupting Into Space An 86-mile-high volcanic plume explodes above the horizon of Jupiter's moon Io. The plume is erupting over a caldera (volcanic depression), named Pillan Patera, after a South American god of thunder, fire and volcanoes. Galileo, June 28, 1997.
    Michael Benson

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His collection forms a more complete and coherent picture of the seemingly dark corners of space. The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., features 148 of his color and black-and-white photographs in an exhibition, which opened Wednesday.

Dealing with colors, he says, is complex. To take a color picture in space, a space craft shoots ideally using red, green and blue filters. But that doesn't always happen. What makes matters more difficult is that the space craft is roaring through space and the angles of the picture can change. In several cases, Benson has worked with Paul Geissler, and imaging expert and planetary scientist who works at the U.S. Geological Survey to decipher color data.

One of Benson's favorites in the collection is "Europa and the Great Red Spot," which he assembled from 80 different images. It shows Jupiter's moon Europa in front of Jupiter's swirling cloudscape.

Whitney is an assistant producer with NPR's science desk.

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