A new book showcases photos from rovers and space probes
Human beings may not have gone farther than Earth’s moon, but our robot minions—that is, our rovers, satellites, and space probes—have voyaged throughout the solar system. And they’ve brought cameras. Michael Benson’s stunning new book, Planetfall: New Solar System Visions (Abrams), showcases their photographic efforts. This image, taken by the Mars rover Opportunity at Victoria Crater, shows the rover’s tire tracks in the foreground.
Our robot explorers aren’t always passive observers. In 2005 NASA’s Deep Impact space probe flew past the comet Tempel 1 and fired a projectile at the comet’s icy nucleus. The probe photographed the resulting cloud of dust and ice that expanded into space, and its spectrometers studied the chemical composition of the dust cloud.
Benson calls the Cassini probe a model for 21st-century space exploration, and he has good reason to be impressed: The sturdy probe entered Saturn’s orbit in 2004, and today it’s still snapping pictures of the planet, its rings, and its moons. This image shows the planet’s rings edge on, with the moons Tethys to the left and Mimas to the right. Ring shadows fall across Saturn’s northern hemisphere.
In the same way that sailors long to make landfall after a long voyage at sea, space travelers—Benson conceives—will yearn for “planetfall,” which he defines as the act of reaching a planet after a space journey. It’s easy to imagine that this view of Earth would warm a traveler’s heart. This photo was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft as it headed away from Earth on its way to study a comet.
Photo: ESA/Michael Benson/Kinetikon Pictures
The Saturn moon Enceladus is one of the most fascinating bodies in the solar system and a possible target in the hunt for extraterrestrial life. It’s thought that beneath its frozen surface there is liquid water, which could support life. Enceladus has cryovolcanoes that periodically erupt; the Cassini orbiter captured this image of the moon venting icy water into space.
Our own moon is currently being mapped in exquisite detail by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. This view shows the lunar landscape in the vicinity of the Meton and Barrow craters in the moon’s far north. NASA hopes the orbiter will prepare the way for future manned missions to the moon by identifying possible landing sites and locating potentially useful resources (like water ice near the lunar poles).
Photo: NASA GSFC/Arizona State University/Michael Benson/Kinetikon Pictures
The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter has been taking high-resolution images and making mineralogical maps of the surface of Mars since 2004. This photo shows dense morning fog made of water ice and water vapor in the Valles Marineris canyon system. The canyon is more than 6 kilometers deep in places.
Photo: ESA Planetary Science Archive
The Solar Dynamics Observatory was launched in 2010 as part of NASA’s Living With a Star Program. The observatory is studying our sun’s magnetic field and the solar activity (such as flares and coronal mass ejections) that can interfere with electrical and telecommunication networks on Earth. This image shows the solar corona and magnetic loops during an eclipse of the sun by the Earth.
Photo: NASA GSFC/Michael Benson/Kinetikon Pictures
Images from Planetfall will also be featured in an exhibit at Hasted Kraeutler Gallery in New York City. The exhibit opens on December 13.