Other Worlds: Artist Michael Benson on his beautiful images of the solar system

Artist Michael Benson creates beautiful images of our solar system using data gathered by NASA and the European Space Agency. With a new exhibition of his work opening at the Natural History Museum, we spoke to Benson about his creative process and enduring fascination with the universe

Other Worlds: Visions of our Solar System opens at the Natural History Museum tomorrow and brings together 77 images of interstellar landscapes, from frozen dunes on Mars to lunar craters and volcanoes on Venus.

Photographs offer a look at geographical features as well as natural phenomena such as hurricanes, eclipses and dust storms: there’s an image of a typhoon forming over the Bay of Bengal and another of a specular reflection casting a warm golden glow over the Caribbean. There are also shots of thick storm clouds with flattened tops in the tropopause (the boundary between the troposphere and the stratesphere) over Senegal and Mali, and dense plumes of smoke caused by deforestation rising into the atmosphere above Mexico.

Typhoon over Bay of Bengal
A typhoon forming over the Bay of Bengal. NASA, JPL/Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures. Lead image (top): Night Side of Saturn. The planet’s night side is illuminated by sunlight reflected off its rings. The planet’s shadow cuts across the rings, top centre. South is up in this view. NASA, JPL/Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures

The show also emphasises the diversity of different landscapes in our solar system. Images of the moon show craters more than 100km wide, while Mars’ desert like-surface is littered with rocks. Some pictures aim to give a sense of scale – in one, Mercury is dwarfed by a fiery, glowing sun – while others show the beautiful colours and cloud patterns found on the surface of Saturn, Jupiter and Uranus.

Benson, an artist, photographer and film-maker, creates images using photographs taken by space probes and rovers on Mars and by astronauts on board the International Space Station.

After selecting data from NASA and the ESA’s public archives, he creates ‘mosaics’ of landscapes by stitching together individual frames, or colour composites using images shot through different filters. The raw data is usually black-and-white, with colours added in Photoshop.

Uranus and Its Rings This remarkable picture shows the planet's very faint rings, which were discovered in 1977. Extremely dark, they may be made of countless fragments of water ice containing radiation-altered organic material. Uranus was unknown to ancient astronomers. British astronomer William Herschel discovered the planet in 1781 using a homemade 15-centimeter telescope. Voyager, January 24, 1986 Credit: NASA; JPL; Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures
Uranus and Its Rings shows the planet’s very faint rings, which were discovered in 1977. Extremely dark, they may be made of countless fragments of water ice containing radiation-altered organic material. Voyager, January 24, 1986. Credit: NASA; JPL; Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures

“If you want a colour image of [unmanned spacecraft] Cassini orbiting Saturn, for example, you have to get at least two but preferably three black-and-white frames shot through different filters – red, green and blue, if you’re lucky – and then you can make a colour composite and play with that until you get it to look right,” he says.

“More frequently than not, though, you’ll get something like red, infrared and ultraviolet. …Then there’s the difficult and complicated task of trying to get the filters to work correctly. Sometimes you just can’t do it, so either you leave it as a black-and-white image … or you move on and look for other data sets that will work,” he adds.

Frosted Mars Dunes in Winter
Frosted Mars dunes in Winter. Image: NASA, JPL, Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures
Frosted Mars Dunes in Winter_Detail
Close-up of Frosted Mars dunes in Winter

When adding colour, Benson says he tries to remain as true to life as possible. Some shades appear a little more saturated than they would in real life but the end result is always largely accurate. “I use your standard darkroom techniques – though now it’s in Photoshop – to make the images work as fine art prints, but I don’t go beyond a certain subjective level where I falsify things,” he says. “I think that’s important with this type of work because we haven’t experienced any of these places ourselves, and they are beyond the realm of direct human experience – we still have to send probes or rovers to see them – so I’m trying to convey what they might look like if we could go there.”

Alongside brightly coloured photographs of Earth, Mars and the Sun are some stunning radar images of Venus. The detailed black-and-white shots look almost like pencil drawings and show a surface marked with craters and volcanoes. They were gathered during the US Magellan mission in the 1990s, when a spacecraft was sent to orbit the planet from above and map its surface, producing images around 10 times clearer than those gathered on previous Soviet missions. (Data also provided new evidence about Venus’ age and showed geographical features such as lava channels measuring several thousand kilometres).

Tusholi Corona on Venus The oval-shaped feature in the upper left, Tusholi Corona overlaps La Fayette impact crater in the Tethus Regio (region) of Venus. Radar image, Magellan, Sept. 15, 1990 – Sept. 14, 1992 Credit: NASA; JPL; USGS; Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures
Tusholi Corona on Venus. The oval-shaped feature in the upper left, Tusholi Corona overlaps La Fayette impact crater in the Tethus Regio (region) of Venus. Radar image, Magellan, Sept. 15, 1990 – Sept. 14, 1992 Credit: NASA; JPL; USGS; Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures

“They’re the only images in the show that are not visible light or close to visible light but I found them so interesting, I had to include them,” says Benson. “Venus has a very dense cloud cover all the time, so it’s really hard to capture it unless you have radar.”

Benson first became fascinated with space as a child in the 1960s, when US astronauts were making man’s first steps on the moon. He also cites Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as an early source of inspiration. “That’s a masterpiece of film, obviously … and from an early age, Kubrick and [author Arthur C. Clarke] brought home to me that some of the great existential questions: what are we doing in the universe? what is our destiny, and where did we come from? and all those themes dealt with in the film are inextricably entwined with cosmic imagery,” he says.

Transit of Io
Jupiter’s innermost large moon, Io, is a small globe on the far right of the image. Io orbits 350,000km from Jupiter and is a little bigger than Earth’s moon. Mosaic composite photograph, Cassini, 1 January 2001. NASA; Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures

Creating images is a painstaking process, often involving days or weeks of editing. “Typically, it’ll be three or four days but it depends on how many individual frames [there are] and how ambitious I’m being with it,” he says.

“One of the images of Mars in the show took a week because there were lots of different frames to assemble, and when I get it to a level where I’m happy with, I’ll usually let it set for a few hours, then come back in with a coffee and realise, ‘oh, there are some issues I have to clean up.’ Preparing it for printing is another phase, as getting it on chromogenic paper can be a challenge – making sure it looks organic, in the sense that you don’t see a grid of digital data, and so it looks almost as if it was shot on film.”

Mercury Passing in front of the Sun
Mercury passing in front the Sun showing the contrast in size between the smallest plant in the solar system, and the Sun, which contains over 99 percent of its mass. Composite ultraviolet photograph. Solar Dynamics Observatory 2012. NASA Trace Project/Stanford-Lockhead/Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures

Benson spends a great deal of time trawling archives to find new material, as well as following current missions in space. The raw images which form the basis for Other Worlds date from the 1960s to 2015.

“There’s a blog I sometimes look at called Unmanned Space Flight … and when [space probe] New Horizons was going past Pluto, for example, I was at Johns Hopkins University [which launched the probe] talking to the imaging team. There are many different ways to get clued in to what’s happening but sometimes, it’s just a case of going through every shot in an archive over a period of weeks – especially if I have a deadline or a book project,” he explains.

Sunset on Mars
Sunset on Mars. Sunset colours on Mars are far cooler than those on Earth. The blue glow is caused by sunlight scattering in the atmosphere, the same phenomenon that makes our sky blue. Dust gives the rest of the sky a copper colour. Composite photograph, Spirit rover, 19 May 2005. NASA JPL, Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures

When it comes to what makes for an interesting data set, Benson says it can be anything from good lighting to unusual textures or shots that give a sense of the vastness of the solar system.

“Sometimes you’ll get a lovely afternoon or evening lighting situation from the Mars rover images – it’s the same as what photographers look for on Earth, when the light is near the horizon and creates interesting effects and shadows,” he adds. “I’m also a sucker for a shot of a moon orbiting past a planet.”

The exhibition is a visual treat and Benson’s images are particularly beautiful up close. Visitors can choose to listen to a soundtrack composed by Brian Eno or an audio commentary featuring insights from experts while touring the show. It’s a fascinating collection of images, offering a look at parts of the solar system in a whole new light.

Crescent Mercury
Mecury as seen by NASA’s Messenger spacecraft during a fly by, showing the line that divides the day and night sides of the planet. North is to the right. Mosaic composite photograph, Messenger, 14 January 2008. NASA, JPL, Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures
Io with Two Eruptions Visible Jupiter’s innermost large moon, Io is the most volcanic object in the Solar System. The gravitational pull of Jupiter squeezes the moon, forcing lava to the surface in eruptions from over 400 active volcanoes. Some of Io’s volcanic centers have bright and colorful flows, perhaps due to sulfur. Multi-frame mosiac, Galileo, July 3, 1999 Credit: NASA; JPL; PIRL; University of Arizona; Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures
Io with Two Eruptions Visible. Jupiter’s innermost large moon, Io is the most volcanic object in the solar system. The gravitational pull of Jupiter squeezes the moon, forcing lava to the surface in eruptions from over 400 active volcanoes. Some of Io’s volcanic centers have bright and colorful flows, perhaps due to sulfur. Multi-frame mosiac, Galileo, July 3, 1999. NASA, JPL, PIRL, University of Arizona, Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures

“It’s extraordinary. There are moments in my work when I realise that I’m probably the first human being on earth to see something the way someone would see it if they were to go there,” says Benson. “I’m not the first person to see the raw black-and-white material, of course, because planetary scientists and engineers have seen that, but they haven’t necessarily taken the time or effort to assemble the images into a colour composite – or at least, I doubt it has been done with the care that I take to make sure that it works as a photograph.”

Other Worlds opens at the Natural History Museum on January 22 until May 15 2016. For visitor details and opening times see nhm.ac.uk

Images courtesy of Flowers Gallery

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