An image of Pluto captured by the New Horizons probe on 13 July 2015 © NASA/APL/SwRI

Pluto flyby data will be used to create art for Museum exhibition

Data from this week's flyby of Pluto will be turned into art by Michael Benson for the upcoming exhibition Otherworlds, which explores the landscapes of our solar system.

NASA's New Horizons probe has this week made its closest flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto and its five moons, gathering data and snapping pictures. This is the closest approach to Pluto ever undertaken and will provide a wealth of new information about the composition and dimensions of the dwarf planet.

With this data, artist, writer and curator Michael Benson hopes to create an image of Pluto's landscape to complement his portfolio of photographic portraits on the planets, moons, asteroids and comets in our solar system. A collection of these images, including any made of Pluto, will go on display at the Natural History Museum in January 2016.

The exhibition, Otherworlds: Visions of our Solar System, includes more than 70 composite images that use raw data from NASA and ESA to piece together visions of the solar system, including what planetary landscapes would look like if humans could stand on the surface.

The complete set

Probes have visited all the major planets of our solar system, providing data for Benson to use in his visionary photography. He is now hoping that New Horizons will allow him to complete the set of the classic nine planets (despite Pluto's re-classification as a dwarf planet in 2006).

Benson is currently visiting the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland USA, which is running the New Horizons spacecraft that flew by Pluto yesterday. 'It's very exciting, and the atmosphere here is quite electric, in particular because the first close image of the solar system's outermost world proves that it's a quite fascinatingly variegated place, with multiple kinds of terrain,' he said.

'I do hope to use the mission's image data to composite an image of Pluto for the Otherworlds show, though it will take many months for the spacecraft to trickle the full resolution images to Earth. So we'll see if there is time. In any case, it's very heartening that the mission is such a big success.'

Science and art

As well as a stunning set of images, the exhibition will bring Museum science to life as experts discuss their research into the formation of the solar system and planetary landscapes. Museum research ranges from working with NASA and ESA to explore bodies such as comets, using our collection of 2,000 meteorites to investigate the early solar system and examining the geology of other planets.

Dr Joe Michalski, who is uncovering the geological process that shaped Mars, has been closely following the progress of NASA's probe. 'The amazing results from New Horizons have revealed that Pluto is not just a tiny ice ball on the edge of the solar system, but in fact it is a complex world of its own with vast, alien landscapes containing clues to the geological history of this dwarf planet,' he said.

'It will take months and years of careful analysis to work out how Pluto and its moons formed and evolved through time, and how they fit into our understanding of the solar system's origins. This new data represents the first opportunity to comprehend the geology of our distant planetary neighbour.'

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