Out There: Beyond: A Solar System Voyage by Michael Benson
It is now almost 400 years since Galileo first peered in wonder at Jupiter and its four circling moons through his small 20x telescope. What he saw eventually changed our world view forever. Over those centuries mankind has learned much about our own solar system, and Michael Benson's Beyond: A Solar System Voyage (Abrams, 2009) gives us breathtaking views of the sun and its planets for which Galileo would doubtless have given all he had to see.
Benson emphasizes that his is not a comprehensive history of planetary knowledge. As he says in his introduction...
With its emphasis on the visual, Beyond is not meant to be a detailed study of the many astonishing scientific discoveries we've made along the way. Rather, this book provides a photographic introduction to the astonishingly diverse landscapes that wheel like gigantic clockwork around our central star, the Sun.
But despite his disclaimer that "the visual harvest of these unmanned space missions belongs as much to the history of photography as it does to the history of science," his introductory chapters are exceedingly well-written accounts of humankind's gradual understanding of our planetary neighbors. Benson begins with the ancients, the sky tablets of the Babylonians, and takes the reader through early astronomers from Philolaus, Seleucus, and Aristarchus to Copernicus, Galileo, Huygens, and then to the modern space race which engendered twentieth century discoveries and exploration.
Nevertheless, the matter of this book is its stunning, awe-inspiring, photos of our space family, presented in the order of the trajectory of NASAs robotic orbiters--first Earth and its moon, then Venus, the Sun, Mercury, Mars, and the giant planets, as shot by several generations of spacecrafts, from the Lunar Orbiter of the 1960s through the two Voyagers, Mariner 10, Viking, Magellan, Galileo, Soho, Cassini, and the rest. Adjectives fail to describe the visual impact of these scenes set against the velvet black of space--Earth and its moon as seen together from a fly-by, the dark side of the moon, the flaring, exploding sun red as a furnace, Venus' surface as seen by x-ray photography through its swirling clouds, the red surface of Mars and its dark, rocky moon Phobos, asteroids so close you feel you can touch them.
And then there are the gorgeous, literally other-worldly shots of the giant planets: Jupiter's Great Red Spot, up close and personal, the boiling surface of Jupiter with its moons, icy-blue Europa and fiery Io, sailing below us with the great planet's face beyond them; Saturn's rings seen from all angles and one surreal photo from high above Saturn's pole showing the dark side of its rings and the long shadow of the planet itself streaming away from the Sun. And then there are the "ice giants," Uranus as pale, smooth, and glowing as an egg, Neptune as brilliantly blue and icy as its name suggests, not to mention its quirky moon Triton, the coldest known place in the solar system which nevertheless supports volcanic activity!
Although the author suggests that the text plays second fiddle to the photographs, there is plenty here for the reader to glean--a history of robotic space exploration, an explanation of the trajectories and operation of these craft, and plenty of basic information and tantalizing tidbits learned through these space voyages. For example, in its 2005 fly-by of Saturn, Cassini learned that Saturn's E ring is composed of ice crystals provided by the liquid water geysers of its moon Euceladus, which freeze as they spew forth into space to form another ring around the planet.
Beautifully designed with thick, glossy black pages against which is set white type and the glorious colored prints, Beyond: A Solar System Voyage is a book for the space geek, the would-be astronaut, the nature photographer who thinks big, and anyone who is willing to think about the beauty and wonder that is our own place in space. As the author concludes...
And if Beyond conveys some of what these strange and beautiful places would look like to someone lucky enough to see them glimmering through the windows of an interplanetary spaceship, then the book has succeeded.
A substantial appendix includes a glossary, a bibliography of useful books and web sites, and a fully detailed index.
Other books of photographs from the solar system and deep space include Benson's companion book for adults, Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes, Voit's Hubble Space Telescope: New Views of the Universe and Kerrod's Hubble: The Mirror on the Universe.