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Preview: Otherworlds at the Natural History Museum

The first glimpse at the Natural History Museum's new photography exhibition about space.

In the midst of the excitement about Tim Peake's work on the International Space Station, the apparent discovery of Planet 9, and the rare chance to see five planets in the sky this February, a new exhibition of space photography at the Natural History Museum prompts us to contemplate how we conceptualise the universe.

This year is already proving to be an exciting one for astronomy. The British astronaut Tim Peake is currently on the International Space Station, explaining the delightful minutiae of life in space on his Twitter account, from making a cup of tea to using the bathroom. Until the 20th February five planets - Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn - will be visible in the sky, with the best view on the 5th February. In the last couple of days, the discovery of another potential planet in our solar system, Planet 9, has been announced right before the opening of the Natural History Museum’s new exhibition dedicated to space photography.

With all of these developments, the decision to host Otherworlds: Visions of our Solar System seems like a prescient one, but the director Sir Michael Dixon explains that it was just a fortuitous coincidence.

The new exhibition fuses beautiful photography with complex and fascinating science. It features a soundscape of original music by Brian Eno, as well as an audio commentary explaining the work of leading Museum scientist Dr Joe Michaelski. It is divided into themed sections, with some visually impressive pieces spanning walls, and others clustered together: a colourised image of the dwarf planet Pluto on one wall, an assortment of comets and asteroids trailing through space on another.

Wandering around, you can see the dusty craters of the moon, the frosted dunes of Mars during the winter, a broiling Venus, and an ice-covered Europa. In the same way that Chris Hadfield’s excellent You are Here, a book of photos of earth from the ISS, points out that human destruction can be seen from space, this exhibition includes images of Earth and man-made folly. The Yucatán burnings in April 2003, in which some fires were natural but others deliberate (in order to clear land for agriculture), are clearly visible in an image taken from a high orbit in space, as dense plumes of smoke envelop the Gulf of Mexico.

The seventy-seven images have been curated by artist and writer Michael Benson through painstaking research. Benson describes his artistic process as ‘panning for gold’: he combs through data from the NASA and ESA mission archives to find the images. Most of the original images are black and white - if he is ‘lucky’ they are infrared, green and ultraviolet. The mosaic composites are edited using darkroom techniques, but Benson uses empirical data to make the colour as ‘true’ as it can be. His work allows us to see what no human eye can witness on its own - a blue and orange tinted sunset on Mars is one of the most striking images.

Other highlights include a picture of the moon and earth as paired crescent worlds, an unusual snapshot taken by Lunar Orbiter 4 on 19th May 1967, and an image of the sun glinting off the Pacific Ocean. This ‘specular reflection’, which captures the angle of the sun’s rays reflecting off the Caribbean Sea, was taken from the International Space Station. Also fascinating are images of singular comets and asteroids tumbling through space, framed perfectly by Benson. The show as a whole forms a beautiful and alienating experience, encouraging the viewer to consider the depths of our universe, humanity’s insignificance, and the importance of scientific exploration into space.

Otherworlds: Visions of our Solar System is on show at the Natural History Museum from 22 January 2016. More information and tickets here.