The Cosmos In Living Color: Michael Benson’s Interstellar Imagery

5 minute read

The startling majesty – and deceptive complexity – of Michael Benson’s space art can be traced back through a process he dubs “true color.” A multimedia artist, Benson is a man utterly fascinated with outer space (he points to 2001: A Space Odyssey as an inspiration for his interstellar works — works that so impressed 2001 author Arthur C. Clarke that the sci-fi titan agreed to write the foreword to one of Benson’s books), and he has fixed his talents on creating visions that break free of the confines of Earth, enabling viewers to behold the unseen wonders of the universe.

To encounter a Benson landscape is to be in awe of not only how he sees the universe, but also the ways in which he composes the never-ending celestial ballet. From the spidery volcanic fractures that scar the surface of Venus to the time-lapse flight path of a stray asteroid, the dizzying close-ups of the swirling “red spot” of Jupiter, the x-ray-filtered view of the sun’s surface and the rippling red dunes of Mars, Benson is a visual stylist with a gift for framing and focus. Apart from cutting-edge high-definition renderings of our solar system’s most familiar objects, he also routinely converts extra-terrestrial terrain into thrilling, abstract landscapes that seem positioned somewhere between the scientific and the avant-garde.

Some of his greatest achievements skew towards the hyper realistic; I have been following Benson’s work for years and still the image I remember most is a massive, intricately-detailed view of the surface of Io, one of Jupiter’s moons (slide 13 in the gallery above). Looming large in a print that renders the Io surface in a yellow-brownish hue, delineating the moon’s different terrains, Benson’s color scheme accentuates the dark volcanic calderas that dot the satellite’s surface. The final result is sharp, meticulous and magnificent. At first glimpse it’s a simple planetary object, but the closer your eye scans the terrain, the more you realize that Benson has somehow taken this imagery captured 400 million miles away and given us a front-row seat to consider the turbulent topography of this alien orb. Benson’s visions demand more than a single look; the longer one spends with his vast landscapes, considering the scale and scope, the more they facilitate a state of meditation.

Behind every one of these images, however, lies an intricate and involved photo editing process (watch the video of Benson’s method above). Benson typically begins each work by filtering through hundreds or thousands of raw images from space, made available to the public by NASA and the European Space Agency – photographs that have been taken by unmanned space probes flying throughout the solar system, rovers on Mars or humans aboard the International Space Station. Many of these photos come back to Earth as black and white composites, or as images created with only a few active color filters. Benson then sorts through the images in a hunt for something surprising, revealing or noteworthy. Once he’s found a subject of interest, he starts stitching together individual snapshots to create larger landscapes, and filtering these landscapes through his own color corrections to create a spectrum that approximates how these interstellar vistas would appear to the human eye.

In his latest published photo collection Planetfall: New Solar System Visions, now available from Abrams, Benson details the fine points of his processing techniques:

“The process of creating full-color images from black-and-white raw frames—and mosaic composites in which many such images are stitched together—can be quite complicated,” Benson writes. “In order for a full-color image to be created, the spacecraft needs to have taken at minimum two, but preferably three, individual photographs of a given subject, with each exposed through a different filter… ideally, those filters are red, green, and blue, in which case a composite color image can usually be created without too much trouble. But in practice, such spacecraft as the Cassini Orbiter or the Mars Exploration Rovers … have many different filters, which they use to record wavelengths of light well outside of the relatively narrow red, green and blue (RGB) zone of the electromagnetic spectrum that human eyes can see.”

Benson goes on to explain that he will often start working with images that are missing an essential filter — that ultraviolet and infrared filters have been used instead of color filters, meaning the composite image is lacking necessary information.

It is here where Benson has carved out an area of expertise, filling in that missing image information to add shape, scale and color to the planetary bodies he hopes to explore. The resulting visuals, as you can see above, are pristine and powerful glimpses of the furthest reaches of our solar system (and, in some of Benson’s other works, the very edges of the universe). With the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars in August, and its subsequent photographs of what appears to be Martian riverbeds, the world was once again reminded of the power of a single image transmitted back to Earth across millions of miles of open space. It’s a dizzying thing, to behold an alien world, and scanning through the portfolio of Michael Benson — a true “space odyssey” — is to experience this rush of discovery again and again.

Michael Benson’s new book Planetfall: New Solar System Visions, is now available from Abrams. Also featured above are images from Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes (Abrams, 2008). Images from Planetfall will be on display at New York’s Hasted Kraeutler Gallery in December 2012. To see more of Benson’s work, visit his web site.

Steven James Snyder is an Assistant Managing Editor at

The first 12 images in this gallery are from Michael Benson's new book, Planetfall: New Solar System Visions. The Milky Way over the south Indian Ocean. The nucleus of our home galaxy is directly at the terrestrial horizon, to the left of the faint Comet Lovejoy. Mosaic composite photograph. ISS 030 crew, Dec. 29, 2011Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA JSC / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures (c) All Rights Reserved
Crescent Saturn and rings. South is to the right. Mosaic composite photograph. Cassini, Feb. 15, 2007NASA / JPL-Caltech/Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures (c) All Rights Reserved
North polar dunes through clouds. In places material has slipped from the dune crests and collected in their troughs—probably due to seasonal thawing. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Oct. 26, 2008NASA / JPL / University of Arizona
Earthrise at the Moon's south polar horizon, with Shackleton Crater in the foreground. We're upside down," with Australia visible at the top of the terrestrial globe. Because Earth always hangs in the same position above the Moon's near side, it never seems to rise or set from a fixed location—but in this case, the spacecraft's motion makes it appear to. Kaguya, Nov. 7, 2007 JAXA / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures (c) All Rights Reserved
Reflected sunlight glows through clouds over the South Pacific in this view of crescent Earth taken from 217,500 miles away, or almost the distance of the Moon. Rosetta, Nov. 13, 2009ESA / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures (c) All Rights Reserved
Nucleus of periodic comet Tempel 1 soon after being struck by a projectile launched from the Deep Impact spacecraft. A cloud of dust and ice expands in space. Deep Impact, July 4, 2005NASA /JPL / UMD / Michael Benson/Kinetikon Pictures (c) All Rights Reserved
Endurance Crater’s central dune field. Many Martian craters accumulate sand dunes at their centers. Mosaic composite photograph. Opportunity Rover, Aug. 27, 2004NASA / JPL-Caltech / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures (c) All Rights Reserved
Enceladus vents water into space from its south polar region. The moon is lit by the Sun on the left, and backlit by the vast reflecting surface of its parent planet to the right. Icy crystals from these plumes are likely the source of Saturn’s nebulous E ring, within which Enceladus orbits. Mosaic composite photograph. Cassini, Dec. 25, 2009NASA / JPL-Caltech/Michael Benson/Kinetikon Pictures (c) All Rights Reserved
Saturn’s tiny moon Mimas in transit across rippling ring shadows on the planet’s northern hemisphere during that hemisphere’s winter. Mimas is only 246 miles in diameter. South is up. Mosaic composite photographs. Cassini, Jan. 18, 2005NASA / JPL-Caltech / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures (c) All Rights Reserved
View of the solar corona and magnetic loops during an eclipse of the Sun by the Earth. In this image, the outer plasma atmosphere of the Sun, 200 times hotter than the Sun’s surface, is occulted by our planet. The graduated reduction in our view is due to the variable density of Earth’s atmosphere, which blocks ultraviolet light. Solar Dynamics Observatory, April 2, 2011NASA GSFC / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures (c) All Rights Reserved
Transit of Io across Jupiter. South is up in this view. Mosaic composite photograph. Cassini, Jan. 1, 2001NASA / JPL-Caltech / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures (c) All Rights Reserved
Closer view of asteroid Vesta’s cratered surface. Vesta is one of three surviving remnant protoplanets in the asteroid belt—a vast ring between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Dawn, Aug. 11, 2011NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA/MPS / DLR / IDA / PSI / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures (c) All Rights Reserved
The remaining images in this gallery are from Michael Benson's book, Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes. Jupiter’s innermost large moon, Io is the most volcanic object in the Solar System. The gravitational pull of Jupiter squeezes the moon, forcing lava to the surface in eruptions from over 400 active volcanoes. Some of Io’s volcanic centers have bright and colorful flows, perhaps due to sulfur. Multi-frame mosaic Galileo, July 3, 1999 NASA / JPL / PIRL / University of Arizona / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures / (c) All Rights Reserved
The oval-shaped feature in the upper left, Tusholi Corona, overlaps La Fayette impact crater in the Tethus Regio (region) of Venus. Radar image, Magellan, Sept. 15, 1990 – Sept. 14, 1992 NASA / JPL / USGS / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures
Io’s volcanic plains with Haemus Montes, a 6-mile-high mountain, at the day-night terminator to the right. Multi-frame mosaic. Voyager 1, March 5, 1979 NASA / JPL / USGS / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures
This crescent view is one of the last images recorded by Voyager 2 as it sped onward toward interstellar space, having surveyed most of the outer Solar System. Voyager 2, Aug. 31, 1989 NASA / JPL / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures
Europa (upper right) is slightly smaller than Earth's Moon. Jupiter's Great Red Spot, a vast cyclonic storm system about two times the size of Earth, is surrounded by other oval storms and banded clouds. Multi-frame mosaic Voyager 1, March 3, 1979 NASA / JPL / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures
Jupiter's volcanic moon rises at the upper right over the giant planet's night side. Multi-frame mosaic Voyager 1, Feb. 24, 1979 NASA / JPL / Dr. Paul Geissler / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures
This sight cannot be seen from Earth. It was visible only from the STEREO-B spacecraft following behind the Earth. Because the spacecraft was farther from the Moon than we are on Earth, the Moon appeared smaller than what we’re used to seeing. Ultraviolet exposure, STEREO-B, Feb. 25, 2007 NASA STEREO project / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures
The largest canyon in the Solar System, Valles Marineris is almost 2,500 miles long—nearly as long as the continental United States is wide. A ground fog hugs the canyon floor. Haze in the thin Martian atmosphere is visible on the horizon. Multi-frame mosaic Viking Orbiter 1, July 16, 1978 NASA / JPL / Dr. Paul Geissler / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures
The larger of the two tiny Martian moons, Phobos (the gray object to the right) is only about 13 miles wide. Herschel, the largest crater below, is 60 miles across. Viking Orbiter 1, Sept. 26, 1977 NASA / JPL / Dr. Paul Geissler / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures
Mars is the only planet that has global dust storms, some of which last for months. The giant Valles Marineris canyon system is to the right. Multi-frame mosaic Viking Orbiter 2, Feb. 19, 1977 NASA / JPL / Dr. Paul Geissler / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures
Dust storm west of Argyre in Thaumasio. Multi-frame mosiac Viking Orbiter 2, Feb. 17, 1977 NASA / JPL / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures
Sahara dust blows across the Mediterranean toward Italy. Below it, smoke from forest fires in the Balkans extends in the opposite direction, across the southern Adriatic Sea. OrbView 2, Aug. 22, 2000 SeaWiFS Project / NASA / Orbimage / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures
Chaos terrain, faults, and curving ridges cover the face of Europa, one of the most tantalizingly enigmatic worlds in the Solar System. Europa almost certainly has a vast, ice-capped global ocean kept warm by the gravitational effects of Jupiter and its moons, and perhaps by volcanoes on the sea floor. Europa may have enough heat, water, and organic material for life to have evolved here. Galileo, March 29, 1998NASA / JPL / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures
This remarkable picture shows the planet's very faint rings, which were discovered in 1977. Extremely dark, they may be made of countless fragments of water ice containing radiation-altered organic material. Uranus was unknown to ancient astronomers. British astronomer William Herschel discovered the planet in 1781 using a homemade 15-centimeter telescope. Voyager, Jan. 24, 1986 NASA / JPL / Michael Benson / Kinetikon Pictures

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