Snapshots from the Edge
There are numerous coffee-table books with cool space images available today, so it takes something really special to distinguish itself from the pack. Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes, by Michael Benson, with a foreword by Arthur C. Clarke and an afterword by Lawrence Weschler ($55.00, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.), fills the bill. Not only does it display many of the finest photos ever taken by unmanned spacecraft, it tells the story of how we have sent these surrogate eyes to places it may be a long time—if ever—before humans are able to follow.
The presentation of (in most cases) many pictures of each world offers the reader an intimacy with not just their terrain but its unique textures; in the case of Mars, for example, the dynamic effects of water and wind erosion create a variety of forms that resemble everything from pitted metal to ocean waves to exotic alphabets to pine-clad ridges to comet storms (though in reality, most are dunefields and windswept deserts). Other worlds appear more uniform: a densely cratered Mercury, the fractured surface of Venus, with its striations and patches, as revealed by Magellan’s cloud-piercing radar; the craters, mountains, and plains of the Moon, seen from angles impossible from Earth and including its Farside; the flares, loops, and prominences of the Sun; the roiling swirl of Jupiter’s clouds and its retinue of distinctive moons; the intricacy (yet regularity) of Saturn’s ring system; the nondescript white haze of Uranus; the marine blue of Neptune with its dark spots and cirrus streamers; our own world’s terrain, variegated to our eyes but containing some combination of the same elements: the whites of snow, ice, and cloud, the blue and turquoise of liquid water, various Earth tones of rock and soil, the greens of plant life.
Michael Benson, who compiled the photos and wrote the accompanying text, is a documentary filmmaker who lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia. In 1995, when he first connected to the Internet, he discovered, in his words, the pleasures of “looking through the ‘windows’ of crewless spacecraft—vessels that have seen Earth dwindle to the size of a pearl, and then a pixel, as they voyaged far beyond any place ever directly observed by human beings.” The Atlantic Monthly has called him a “deskbound cosmic pilgrim”, a fitting title for someone who sifted through each of the tens of thousands of photos taken by the Voyager spacecraft as they passed Jupiter and Saturn, every Mars photo sent home by the two Viking orbiters, every shot taken by the Lunar Orbiter missions of the mid-1960s, as well as huge numbers of images taken by SOHO, Galileo, Magellan, and others of our mechanical emissaries in preparing the book. He worked with one of the best image processors in the planetary sciences community, Paul Geissler, to render the color as accurately as possible. (Most of the early images, before the days of CCDs, are compilations of several images taken through different filters that had to be combined.)
Benson writes passionately about the craft that we have sent forth: “Intricate space probes—encased in scarabaeoid shells, festooned with scopes and scanners, and driven by solar-powered cells and radio-isotope thermo-electric generators—are redefining the limits of human knowledge.” He talks of these autonomous servants of ours almost as if they’re alive; he discusses how even though the Mars Pathfinder lander lost power in 1997, the solar-powered Sojourner rover (according to NASA) is probably still roaming the vicinity, trying to communicate with its parent craft. In his foreword, Clarke runs with the concept of these robots perhaps being the next step in our evolution, one that could someday replace us. Be that as it may, they have taken some extraordinary images, and this book presents a wonderful sample of them.
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