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Review: Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes

Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes
By Michael Benson
Harry N. Abrams, 2003
Hardcover, 324 pp., Illus.
ISBN 0-8109-4531-2

There have been a number of good illustrated books published dealing with the Sun, Moon, and planets of our solar system, but it is doubtful you have seen or ever will see a book quite like this one. The photographs collected by filmmaker Michael Benson for Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes were taken by the Voyagers, Lunar Orbiters, the Mariners, the Vikings, Magellan, Galileo, Cassini, TRACE, NEAR, and other lesser-known probes and landers. The objects of their attention include our Moon and Sun, all the planets (except Pluto) and some of their moons, and some very intriguing asteroids.

With a cinematographer’s eye, Benson combed though thousands of black-and-white and color NASA photos, many never before published, and spent countless hours piecing them together into seamless mosaic images, then digitally editing them to remove any telltale signs of the jigsaw-puzzle montage. A number of the resulting photos were color enhanced to compensate for less-than-true color taken by the probes. The resulting photographs are breathtaking and wondrous, panoramas the probes are incapable of taking due to the narrow field of view, yet close to what you would see yourself if you could somehow ride these probes as they swept by the celestial objects. In this Herculean task, Benson was assisted by Dr. Paul Geissler of the University of Arizona.

If the interplanetary probes could speak, they might say the words of replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner: “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe.”

In the foreword, the famous science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “These images are a spectacular reaffirmation that we are privileged to live in the greatest age of exploration the world has ever known.” There is an even balance of nearly 300 color and black-and-white photos; this includes four gatefolds that measure nearly 1.25 meters in length. The chapters include: The Earth-Moon System, Venus, the Sun, Mercury, Mars, Asteroids, The Jupiter System, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Included is the article “A Space in Time” that Benson wrote for The Atlantic Monthly magazine that inspired Abrams’ editor-in-chief, Eric Himmel, to do the book; a section describing the photographic selection, editing and processing; and other relevant material. Each chapter has introductory material written by Benson, followed by the photographs some have referred to as works of art.

If the interplanetary probes could speak, they might say the words of replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner: “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe.” Prinz crater in the Aristarchus region of Oceanus Procellarum on the nearside of the Moon, images of Earth taken by Galileo (on its circuitous trajectory to Jupiter and its moons) that revealed to our scientists no identifiable forms of intelligent life, the boiling surface of the Sun with its flares and coronas, lava flows and pools in the Lada region of Venus, the Moon-like surface of Mercury, the West Chandor Chasma in the Valles Marineris canyon system of Mars, the asteroid Ida and its moon Dactyl, the moons Io and Europa suspended over the ever-chaotic surface of Jupiter, Io’s erupting volcano Pele, the wondrous and translucent rings of Saturn, the tortured surface of Uranus’ moon Ariel, and the beautiful blue of Neptune with its moon Triton at the tip of the planet’s crescent (pictured on the book’s cover). These are but a few of the photographs that grace this book.

This book’s considerable size (30 x 30 x 2.5 cm) and weight (around two kilograms) coupled with its superb photography and eloquent text, make it more than worth its cover price. First published in English, there are now French, German, Spanish and Japanese editions. It is a book to keep and enjoy for years. I give it my highest recommendation.