Q&A With A Space Artist

Michael Benson builds art from raw data

Instead of buying photos of our solar system, artist Michael Benson decided to create his own—and to do it better. The longtime space aficionado learned to piece together mosaics by combining hundreds of NASA images into one planetary landscape. Spacecraft typically record in various color filters to see different elements of the same view. By overlaying them, Benson creates a detailed, true-color picture of the cosmos.

Have you had any “Eureka!” moments during your work?

If I were to choose only one, it would be when I made a color composite mosaic of Saturn’s satellite Enceladus. This, to my knowledge, is the first color view of the entire moon in which you can see the geysers of water shooting into space. I sat back, looked at it, and realized with kind of a jolt that I was probably the first person to see Enceladus the way it might look if we could actually go there.

Can amateurs also do this?

Anybody can access the raw data and work with it—that’s one of the great things about the U.S. space program. There are even online tutorials. I would start with the ones on the Planetary Society site.

What do you hope people take away from your work?

If my work transmits the sense of wonder I feel at the weirdly compelling and even haunting aspects of the solar system—those alien places that we somehow belong to because our world is part of a greater continuity—then it has succeeded.

See a gallery of Michael Benson’s work here.

Michael Benson
Michael Benson Photograph by Alenka Slavenic

This article was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Popular Science, under the title “Turning Data into Space Art.”