Date: May 13, 2011
Title: Planetary Portraits and Spacescapes
Podcaster: Bob Hirshon
Organization: American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
Description: Science Update host Bob Hirshon speaks with Michael Benson, author of Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes about his work producing large, high-resolution images of the planets and satellites—images that have appeared in museums and galleries around the world. To learn more about Benson’s work, visit: www.kinetikonpictures.com
For more info on the exhibit at the airport, see this link.
Bio: Bob Hirshon is Senior Project Director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and host of the daily radio show and podcast Science Update. Now in its 24th year, Science Update is heard on over 300 commercial stations nationwide. Hirshon also heads up Kinetic City, including the Peabody Award winning children’s radio drama, McGraw-Hill book series and Codie Award winning website and education program. He oversees the Science NetLinks project for K-12 science teachers, part of the Verizon Foundation Thinkfinity partnership. Hirshon is a Computerworld/ Smithsonian Hero for a New Millennium laureate.
Sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the Education and Outreach team for the MESSENGER mission to planet Mercury. Follow the mission as the spacecraft helps to unlock the secrets of the inner solar system at www.messenger-education.org.
Planetary Portraits and Spacescapes
By Bob Hirshon
Welcome to the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast. I’m Bob Hirshon, Senior Project Director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and host of the AAAS Science Update radio show and podcast. Michael Benson is a filmmaker, image producer, photographer, science writer, and journalist. He is perhaps best known for his art exhibits featuring striking images of the planets and satellites of our solar system. Travelers hurrying through Concourse C of Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC may be in danger of missing their flight because of a stunning and attention-grabbing exhibit of Benson’s work in the walkway there. Over the past year, visitors to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum could enjoy a large gallery of his work, an exhibit that just ended its run. And many of his images are compiled in the book Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes.
Experiencing Benson’s work, you get the feeling that it comprises a kind of travel log—the way Anselm Adams’ photos give you a sense of the photographer visiting exotic locales and waiting patiently for the light and shadows to hit exactly right before snapping his photo. But of course, Benson can’t really visit his locations. As he explains, his travels take him deep into digital archives.
So I have a lot of fun trolling through all those archives, deep archives of raw images of NASA missions, mostly, and seeking the extraordinary image, and images which I can mosaic together, and produce panoramic large format landscapes of places we could only dream about when we were kids, you know.
Can you describe some of your favorite images?
Oh, yeah, my single favorite image is actually a black and white print. I love b&w photography, there’s a lot of color work in the show, but—and it is, what you see in it is Jupiter’s satellite Europa, which is a fascinating, ice covered, ocean moon—it’s basically a huge drop of salt water—hanging there in space, orbiting Jupiter. So you can see that planet—it’s not a planet, it’s a moon. Behind it is planet Jupiter—but it’s a solid wall of clouds, storming clouds, and on the left side of the image you see the Great Red Spot, this huge storm system swirling in a vortex shape. It’s all in black and white, so it’s not a “red” spot, but that’s what we call it, the great red spot. And because of the fact that it was taken by one of the Voyager with a telephoto—telescope, it’s a telescope, you have that visual effect of this vast planet. Now, it is a vast planet, but it wouldn’t quite look like a solid wall of clouds behind a moon quite in that way. But in this picture it does look like that. And I’m just—I would like to think that that picture, which I feel very authorial about because I found the raw frames in raw data, and I assembled them, and it’s about 60 raw frames assembled by me over a period of months, but weeks and weeks, I would like to think that that picture will kind of take its place as a key image in the history of exploration, because it’s such an extraordinary image.
And you mentioned that because it’s telescope-based imagery, the background is exaggerated. Is that similar to what happens when photographers use a telephoto lens to shoot the setting sun, and it looks enormous—like it fills up the whole frame, surrounding a human figure or sailboat in the foreground?
Yes! Exactly right. And in fact if you had a spacecraft with a really big telescope on it and you backed it off you could get a shot of the earth’s moon with the earth behind it and the earth looking like a solid wall of … you know, you could have North America, for instance, with a solid wall of clouds, and you could have the moon hovering in front of it. And we know we don’t see things that way, because we have photos from the Apollo astronauts and so on, and they looked up and they saw the earth looking four times bigger than the moon, but it was still something that they could hold up their thumb and cover. But with an extreme telephoto lens, you can get that effect.
And you hinted at how you actually make it, you go into the archives, you get this data and you assemble it in Photoshop, but can you describe a little bit more how you do that? And maybe say how other people can do this?
Oh, yeah, there’s a whole international group of freaks like me who do that kind of thing. Um, it’s not that hard; it’s not that easy. If you want to do black and white, it’s easier. I mean for the one I just described, it’s a bunch of black and white frames that were cleaned up and then assembled in Photoshop. And the result is a mosaic image, composite image. The reason to mosaic lots of pictures together is a.) you can get a much more panoramic view, a wider field view, and b.) you up the resolution of the final print. You know, you can have a much bigger picture.
Benson explains that color imagery is trickier, because the spacecraft take color images as three separate exposures, one for red, one for green and one for blue. And because the spacecraft move so quickly, the exposures don’t match up exactly. But perhaps the biggest difficulty is finding the unpolished gem hidden in all that raw data.
For example, another image that I made recently is called The Dark Side of Saturn. And I found two camera pointings only. But that’s three images each, because in order to get color—taken from behind Saturn, on the other side of the planet from the sun. And if you see them in black and white you think, okay, that’s interesting, it’s not clear what it is, really, but I was alerted to the potential in the material by various cues, you know, and I assembled it together and I found this extraordinary image, you know, because—it’s extraordinary because all, for various reasons, I mean the composition is very cool, I mean, Saturn is very hard to take a bad picture of, it’s such an extraordinary object. But also on the dark side you have all this indirect lighting because of the rings, so even though there isn’t one piece of that photo, one part of the planet that’s lit directly by the sun, you’re looking at the dark side of the rings, which are not really dark, because the light filters through all those ice particles, and then you’re looking at the dark side of the planet, which is not really dark, because in the northern hemisphere, I believe it’s the northern hemisphere, you have the direct reflected light, indirect light from the sun, but it’s directly off the lit side of the rings, and on the other side, the southern hemisphere of the dark side, you have light that filtered through the rings illuminating that, so you have all these levels of indirect illumination in it. And the only way to really see it in its full glory is to do the image processing that I described earlier. And when I put that picture together, I felt extraordinarily privileged, you know because I realized that I was probably the first human being to see it in color, the way it would be seen if we were there. Cause I doubt any planetary scientist went into that data and did what I did, it took about two days of work, you know. And so I had this feeling of privilege, you know, almost like I was exploring space myself, to see that extraordinary thing. Maybe we can put that on your website, that picture.
So they took these shots along with zillions of others and they sat there, as far as we know, because they were not of sufficient scientific interest to go in and do that work to make it look like that.
That’s a very good point: I mean, I’m looking for amazing images and I’m approaching it as a photographer and a filmmaker. And I’m not looking necessarily, I’m not a trained scientist—I’m not a scientist at all—so I’m not looking for what these images are typically used for, which is research purposes. I’m looking for the extraordinary image. So, in fact, the images that I produce may or may not be usable for science. In a way, I’m not that concerned about it, because those guys know exactly how to use their images, but they certainly make a claim to belonging to the history of photography.
If all this has piqued your interest, Benson says that you can visit some of the same archives that he does.
For example, the pds node, the planetary data systems node is where you can go and find every single shot taken by Voyager, the two Voyagers as they flew past the gas giant planets in the outer solar system. Or every single shot taken by the Viking orbiters as the orbited Mars for years. Or much more contemporary missions: Cassini etc, the Mars rovers, you can find all the shots there. They’re in black and white. Each one individually is also a photograph which is enjoyable as a photograph. I mean, typically there you’ll see low contrast images—I mean you have to tweak them a bit. But even an individual Cassini frame in black and white can just be incredibly beautiful. So what I do is refine those and, yes, typically I’ll mosaic them, composite them to get color images, but that’s not… it’s not necessary to do that, necessarily, if I can put it that way.
So pds, that’s … when you say “archives,” you don’t mean a big musty room, you mean a web site you go to?
Yeah, we’re talking complete digital archives—there’s no musty room necessary anymore. And by the way, there’s another site that I would steer people to that will satisfy most people who want to see planetary images and it’s a NASA outreach site and it’s called “A Planetary Photo Journal.” And it has thousands and thousands of processed images or partly processed black and white images that have been cleaned up a bit and contrast enhanced. And you’ll find really a huge number of pictures of Jupiter or Saturn etc etc.
Benson’s next project is a book called Planetfall, featuring solar system images taken since the turn of the century—a period of intense exploration that includes new views of the Moon, Mars and most recently the first detailed images of the planet Mercury, thanks to MESSENGER, the first spacecraft ever to orbit the planet. And Benson is looking forward to more raw material coming in soon.
I just had lunch with Jim Greene, he’s the director of planetary science at NASA, on Monday, this week, and he pointed out that they have three launches between now and the end of the year. / One of them is this very exciting new Mars rover the size of a VW bug, it’ll be landing on Mars next year, they’re launching it this year. Anther one is called Juno and it’s going to be in a polar orbit around Jupiter, looking at the atmosphere of Jupiter. And then a third one is going to orbit the moon, it’ll be two spacecraft orbiting the moon and their actions as they orbit the moon will allow observers on earth to make a very accurate gravitational map of the moon. Because the moon has a very irregular gravitational field. And that will then allow, it will help us plan future activities on the moon. So all of those things are very interesting, I would submit, and worth keeping an eye on, and I’m certainly going to keep an eye on them, because of what I do.
If you’d like to see Michael Benson’s work, visit his website at www.kinetikonpictures.com— that’s kinetikon spelled kinetikon pictures dot com. To read about how he creates his work, click on Exhibits and then “About The Photographs.
Well, that’s our show for today. For the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast, I’m Bob Hirshon.
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365 Days of Astronomy
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