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Stranger than sci-fi

A new photography exhibition in London takes you on a tour of the solar system – and makes the surreal real

Charlie McCann | January 28th 2016

For millennia, humans gazed upon the heavens with nothing but the naked eye. Then Galileo, humanity’s optician, invented the telescope and magnified the firmament, bringing those enigmatic orbs into focus. With the advent of the space age, our telescopes were vaulted into the sky: now we look at the planets through cameras on the spacecraft that wander our solar system. “Otherworlds”, a new exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, showcases the work of these robotic photographers. The artist and writer Michael Benson has rifled through the archives of NASA and the European Space Agency, and processed the raw, black-and-white frames he found, adding colour (by fusing multiple shots exposed to different filters) and expanding the field of view (by stitching contiguous shots together). The resulting 77 images take us on an odyssey from the Sun to Pluto via Saturn (pictured above).

Ground fog covering the Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars, which is over three times deeper than the Grand Canyon

The exhibition begins at home. Step into the darkened gallery and you are greeted with an image of Earth in the round, with dustings of cumulonimbus obscuring the familiar blues and browns and greens. This is Earth as we like to see it – front and centre. But in the sequence of images that follows, Benson pushes it to the margins. In “Earthrise” we see it from a lunar crater, a cloudy blue marble above the barren horizon; and then smaller still, as a mere crescent, moonlighting as the Moon’s moon. This is Benson’s way of putting us in our place. “We now know that Earth is but a minuscule speck in the vastness of space”, reads a caption. Next to a fearsome picture of a round inferno, another caption: “The Sun constitutes 99.86% of the total mass of the star system, with all the planets, moons, asteroids and comets constituting a minuscule kind of rounding error.”

And what an error! Once the exhibition has made our world sufficiently strange to us, it embarks on a tour of these statistical irrelevancies. Benson’s scenes are studies in colour and abstraction: the silken yellow surface of Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, stained red by more than 400 active volcanoes; the steel-coloured crosshatch of Europa, another Jovian moon, frozen and covered in cracks. In a composite photograph taken by the Cassini probe, the compact curve of a tiny moon acts as a pleasing counterpoint to a mass of slanting blue-and-tan lines – Saturn’s rings and the shadows they cast. Benson uses colour to capture what it would be like to visit the planets ourselves. 

This project in documentary realism could easily belong to a different genre: the surreal. As Benson says in a video, “We’ve seen a suite of landscapes that pre-space-age sci-fi writers could only dream of” – other worlds of sublime otherworldliness. These alien landscapes become stranger still when, light years away from Earth, you are occasionally reminded of home. A composite photograph of Pluto taken by the New Horizons spacecraft shows that, when backlit by the Sun, its atmosphere is as blue as our own.

Pluto’s thin atmosphere of methane, nitrogen and carbon monoxide

Then there is Mars, a planet whose landscape seems, at times, to half-rhyme with ours. Its sand dunes look like the Sahara, but during winter they freeze over with dry ice – it’s confusing, a metereological mess of a view. In a video at the end of the exhibition, Joe Michalski, a scientist at the museum, explains that the geology of Mars is strikingly similar to that of Earth. He hopes to learn more about both planets “by analogy”. The volcanic highlands of Iceland, he says, represent the kind of environment where microbes could have evolved on Earth. The discovery of vast mineral deposits in images of Mars, akin to those in Iceland, suggest that conditions for life may be present there. Mars isn’t quite as otherwordly as we thought. By looking at strange things in a different light, they can become familiar.

Otherworlds: Visions of our Solar System Natural History Museum, London, to May 15th 

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