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See outer space like the astronauts

“Erupting Into Space” was captured by NASA’s Galileo orbiter in 1997

While we might appreciate the images gathered by NASA’s various satellites and probes for their scientific value, the often grainy, hazy pictures are probably only considered breathtaking or beautiful as well by planetary enthusiasts, but a new series of outer space photographs by artists Michael Benson is turning more than just scientists’ heads. Benson, whose work includes the documentary PREDICTIONS OF FIRE that premiered at our very own Sundance Film Festival in 1995, scoured NASA’s archives for extraordinary images, which he then manipulated so that they appear to the viewer in a museum as an astronaut would see them in outer space.

The resulting images are not only bigger and brighter than the ones in our grade school textbooks, but they capture some surprisingly serendipitous moments as well, like the volcanic eruption on Jupiter’s moon Io, a soft blue plume that is actually 86-miles high (above). Benson seems particularly fascinated by Jupiter and its moons, showing images that not only reference scale (like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, the famous cyclonic storm system, that is a blip on Jupiter but twice as big as Earth) but the striking surface of the moon Europa (below), for example, whose craggy, scratched-up terrain is “one of the most tantalizing, enigmatic worlds in the Solar System.” It’s an image that satisfies the worlds of both science and art, showing us that the moon may not only have enough heat, water and organic material for life to have evolved there (if we could only reach it and see), but that it’s stunning to simply look at.

“An Ice-Covered Ocean” was taken by Galileo in 1998

Beyond: Visions of Planetary Landscapes” is at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum through May, 2011.