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'Beyond: Visions of Planetary Landscapes'

Friday, October 17, 2008Smithsonian traveling exhibit showcasing ‘otherworldly view’ of planets scheduled to open at Natural History Museum

JOHNSON CITY – Although views of the solar system that one can see while standing on Earth are often impressive – if not “mindblowing” – a closer detailed examination of Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and other planets is what will rivet viewers of the newest exhibition at the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum at the Gray Fossil Site.

This “otherworldly” look at the inner solar system to its outer reaches, collected during 40 years of robotic space missions then processed into “breathtaking” images, is the focus of the Smithsonian traveling exhibition “Beyond: Visions of Planetary Landscapes,” which opens Saturday, Oct. 25.

The exhibit showcases a “rarely seen and mesmerizing” portrait of the solar system’s diverse worlds and their moons, via 35 large-scale framed prints, digitally processed by artist Michael Benson.

“Beyond” remains on display through Dec. 21, in conjunction with the “Out of this World” lecture series sponsored by the museum, ETSU Department of Physics and Astronomy, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

The images come primarily from NASA and European Space Agency missions. Benson “mines” planetary databases for his source material, then uses various techniques, including a mosaic or collage process, to pull together the images to create seamless photographs of “unprecedented clarity and realism.” Through photographs and data that planetary probes send back to Earth, viewers can “soar to the borderlands of the solar system without leaving the safety and comfort of this planet.”

“My goal was to locate, digitally process and print some of the most extraordinary sights ever captured,” Benson said. “I view the photographic legacy of these missions as being a chapter in the history of photography.”

“Beyond” shows that familiar geological formations and the atmospheric disturbances that take place on Earth can also be found on neighboring planets. For example, erupting volcanoes of Sicily find their counterpart in the lava eruptions of Jupiter’s moon Io, and the stormy clouds of Greenland can be seen alongside the “dust devils” of Mars.

The fascinating exhibit was organized for travel by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services (SITES). It is accompanied by Benson’s award-winning book, Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes, (Abrams 2003), which includes a foreward by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. A paperback edition of the book was released in the spring of 2008.

The ETSU Natural History Museum’s “Out of this World” free public lecture series begins Saturday, Nov. 1, and continues every other Saturday afternoon from 2-3 p.m. throughout the exhibit’s run. The guest speakers’ topics range from radio astronomy and deep space to the outer solar system, Saturn’s moons, puzzles in the sky, and an explanation of Mars in 3-D. The talks offer a glimpse of “the many worlds beyond our own in the vast cosmos.”

In addition, the museum is hosting a “Star-Gazing Event” on Monday, Dec. 1, from 7-9 p.m. Visitors will be able to view the “Beyond” exhibit at no charge and venture outside to witness an “amazing…special conjunction of the moon, Venus and Jupiter.” Telescopes and binoculars will be provided by the ETSU Student Astronomy Club.

The ETSU and GSB Natural History Museum and Visitor Center at the Gray Fossil Site is open 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily and is located 1.8 miles off I-26 in Gray. For information, call toll-free 1-866-202-6223 or visit

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