Beautiful Solar System

Only a few days after the first edition of our new annual publication, Beautiful Universe, was wrapped up and sent to the printer, a copy of Beyond arrived in the mail. “Oh,” I thought after a cursory look, “It’s Beautiful Universe: The Book!”

A more detailed examination affirmed that impression. Although the book is limited to shots of the solar system, taken by the robotic spacecrft that humankind has scattered across interplanetary space over the past four decades, evey photo was indeed stunning.

But this is more than just a well-produced glossy picture book. Author and filmmaker Michael Benson has created not only an ode to the Lunar Prospectors [sic], Voyagers, Vikings and many other picture-taking spacecraft, but also a tribute the availability of the images vie the Internet. After he shows us all the images Benson tells in a follow-up essay about what I’d consider a mild obsession with looking at the solar system via the Internet from his home in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He became a space-image junkie as he sat at his keyboard in awe of the Internet’s power to bring him old and new images as well as live feeds from rocket launches. He notes that he downloaded the highest-resolution version he could find of the Hubble Deep Field (amounting to 67 megabytes) just to look at the detail. That sounds like something I should do, now that my home computer can handle such a huge image without choking. Benson spent many evenings downloading images and then took this online plunder to commercial printers to make his own posters.

As with any photographic compilation, my hope was to find a few shots that I had never seen before. Beyond didn’t disappoint. The images new to my eye included ones that showed Mars and its larger moon, Phobos; a few Martian surface vistas; and images of Earth taken by NASA’s Terra and Aqua spacecraft — two spacecraft that admittedly I haven’t paid any attention to.

My unfamiliarity is some of these cases is understandable: the pictures didn’t exist until now. Benson explains his image-selection process towards the end of the book. He not only pored over thousands of pictures, but he also pieced together wide-field mosaics from individual frames (with the help of other imaging specialists). Sometimes he combined filtered frames to create true-colored views. All of this was, of course, a lot of work, which makes this book even more akin to Full Moon by Michael Light (S&T: August 1999, page 78), who did his own image processing on the photographs taken by Apollo astronauts.

The photos in Beyond are organized by target object, with each section beginning with a brief essay. It’s here that Benson offers his praise for the missions themselves, telling how Mariner 10 was brought back from the edge of failure, of an anxiety-producing glitch with Magellan, and of the precision timing of Voyager 2′s passage by Uranus. It’s clear he did plenty of background reading too, given the references he makes (including one from Sky & Telescope). The photos themselves have terse captions that identify only the object in the frame, which spacecraft took them, and when.

After a final look at Neptune and Triton on page 292, we return to Earth with several more lengthy essays that tell us why Benson made this book. These philosophical and sociological essays are infused with biographical information. His second long essay is a breezy chronology of the space program. It’s here that we learn why there aren’t any Soviet photos of the Moon and planets: their cameras and image transmission systems were inferior.

Many people could conclude that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory operate all planetary space missions. Benson makes the same JPL-centric mistake. While this aerospace institution may be in charge of a lot of spacecraft, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) isn’t among them, as Benson misstates. The US part of the joint NASA-European Space Agency mission resides at the Goaddard Space Flight Center. Likewise, JPL has little to do with the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous spacecraft, which was managed by the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. For a text that aims to glorify the projects themselves as much as praise their results, such misplaces credit is unfortunate.

Other mistakes are few. I don’t know if there is a “Bill Hamilton,” but I presume the name is a regrettable combination of the hosts of two planetary-information Web sites that Benson frequented: Calvin J. Hamilton (www.solarviews.org) and Bill Arnett (www.nineplanets.org). To confound the matter, Benson misstates the name of Hamilton’s Web site.

My only complaint with the pictures themselves involves a few hemispheric shots that are spread over two pages. I couldn’t make the book lie flat enough to yield a creaseless Marcuty or Io without a twin-humped limb.

Benson’s site (www.kinetikonpictures.com) is supposed to have more information about the book, but at the time of this writing I found little there. Among the links is a tantalizing (but empty) “Exhibition.” My mind reels at the thought of some of these images being enlarged to cover walls.

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Associate editor Stuart Goldman will be checking NASA’s Web sites for Terra and Aqua more often now

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