Anyone who’s been to a planetarium shouldn’t be surprised at how beautiful space is. But then an exhibit like “Planetfall” reminds you all over again.
The exhibit at the American Association for the Advancement of Science features images by Michael Benson, who takes data from interplanetary probes by NASA and the European Space Agency, digitally enhances them, and spins them into photographs
that are at turns monumental and delicate. It’s hard for the layman to know how much Benson is juicing his raw material, but the resulting images are so hypnotic that it’s easy not to care.
Much of the solar system is represented in surprisingly high-resolution detail: the simmering, fire-belching sun; Earth’s Pacific Ocean lit by a warm glint of sunlight; sand dunes on Mars that look like they’ve been sculpted by a spatula from chocolate frosting; a high-contrast image of the dark side of the moon that could pass for a nighttime aerial view of California’s Sierra foothills; odd, intestine-shaped atmospheric features that adjoin Jupiter’s great red spot; a ridiculously rich collection of images featuring Saturn and its seemingly gossamer rings (example at top); a nearly featureless, light-blue Uranus; and a sharply crescent Neptune. (Sorry, Pluto!)
The unexpected stars of the show (no pun intended) are moons you may never have heard of: Saturn’s subtly textured Enceladus spewing water into space from one of its polar regions; Saturn’s Mimas and Tethys breezily floating in front of the much larger planet; and Jupiter’s Io with its ugly, pitted, rotten-fruit surface (left).
Then there’s the understated “Sunset on Mars” (bottom), in which the sun, appearing only two-thirds as big as it looks from Earth, sets behind the rim of a crater, casting a blue glow made gloomier still by atmospheric dust—-a fitting requiem for an exhibit with impressively expansive horizons.
Through June 28 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1200 New York Ave. NW. On view 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays.