We’ve all heard the term “gas giant” used to describe a few familiar planets, but without a sense of scale, it’s hard to imagine just how big some of our extraterrestrial neighbors are. We don’t often see other planets in their entirety, because spacecraft cameras can only capture narrow windows in the highest-possible resolution. In a sense, our view of the cosmos is limited by the abilities of these mechanical avatars, which is something space artist Michael Benson aims to change.
To give us a different view—a wider view—Benson stitches together hundreds of photographs taken by NASA’s various instruments to create HD mosaics of entire worlds. His latest gift to us, a composite of Jupiter’s ice-moon, Europa, is a thing of wonder.
The process takes days, weeks, or even longer to complete. “I have some Earth images that never seem to get to the point where they’re good enough to hit ‘print,'” he says. “First there’s the process of looking for extraordinary raw frames, in which I go through the quite voluminous data archives of individual planetary missions, or other kinds of deep-space missions.”
Piece by piece, frames are selected, translated, overlaid, and stitched together, creating a photographic jigsaw puzzle so perfect, you’d never know it came from more than one image.
The Europa photograph, for example, is composed of dozens of stills taken by the Voyager spacecraft—data that was beamed back to Earth in 1979. “It has a science fiction quality about it,” says Benson. “You have the Great Red Spot, a storm that’s been raging for at least 300 years. And then you’ve got Europa, hovering there, just floating in space.”
To put things into perspective, that swirling spot, likened to the worst hurricanes on our planet, measures nine thousand miles across. In its entirety, Jupiter could swallow up a thousand Earths.
You might be surprised to learn that anyone can access the raw planetary data, and with some time and practice, learn to stitch the images. Benson suggests starting with the tutorials on the planetary Society website. Should you find yourself in the London area, his exhibit Otherworlds will be shown at the Natural History Museum beginning January 22.
IMAGES: Michael Benson, Natural History Museum London, NASA