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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.

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.

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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.