Seen from Earth, the disks of the Moon and Sun are about the same size — a coincidence that produces one of nature’s great spectacles, a total solar eclipse, on the rare occasions when the Moon passes directly in front of the Sun.
The view from space, where their relative sizes are different, can be remarkable in another way, as we can see from the three pictures above of the small black lunar disk moving across the fiery Sun.
These “transit of the Moon” photos, taken by Nasa’s Stereo-B solar observatory when it was 4.4 times further than Earth from the Moon, are among 77 wonderful images of the solar system that go on show at London’s Natural History Museum from Friday. They were assembled by Michael Benson, an American photographer and artist who specialises in processing data from space missions for large-scale public exhibitions.
“In the past 60 years, an audacious, utterly consequential story has unfolded,” says Benson, 53. “Combining rocket science with the innate human drive to explore, after millennia of speculation about the planets, the first expeditions to the solar system’s far-flung worlds have taken place.
“Through the agency of a small squadron of increasingly sophisticated robotic spacecraft, we’ve seen Earth dwindle to the size of a pearl, and then a pixel, as we voyaged far beyond any place ever directly visited by human beings.”
Benson reprocesses image data from the US and European space agencies to give even more spectacular pictures than the originals disseminated by Esa’s and Nasa’s formidable public relations machines.
A striking example is the long picture above taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of dunes in the red planet’s southern hemisphere in wintertime, showing the sand frosted seasonally with dry ice — carbon dioxide that has condensed out of the Martian atmosphere.
To accompany the images the musician Brian Eno, another space enthusiast, has written an original “soundscape”. “Space is silent. It’s a vacuum. In fact we can’t really experience space directly at all,” he comments. “Making music about space, then, is sheer fantasy or perhaps sheer metaphor.”
“Otherworlds: Visions of our Solar System” is open daily at the Natural History Museum, London, from January 22 to May 15; nhm.ac.uk