SPACE.com: What's Out There seems to aim at both informing readers of the myriad of objects in the universe while awing them at the same time. Why was it important to you to offer more than another photo album from space?
Micheal Soluri: My photographic approach in researching the visual content for WOT was discovering unique sources and accessing remarkable images I had never seen before. As a result, I edited with both the objective of discovering the "seminal" from more than forty years of astronomical images and a commitment to avoid repetition. Avoid saying in similar images what can be communicated in one or a group of remarkable, elegant astronomical images. In some cases, WOT shows the reader scope and scale through close ups and wide shots, for example, of the Orion Nebula and the Sun as well as sequential images like the "light echo" from the exploding red giant Monocerotis. While the images in the book are stunning, they surely represent only a fraction of the ones you sorted through.
How did you go about sorting and choosing the final photographs for What's Out There?
As a photographer, I have been fortunate to both live and shoot in diverse international settings. One of the precepts to reveal the essence of a people or place is to shoot and shoot the opportunities presented then edit. So over a period of three years, I researched through some 15,000 astronomical images to edit a final 212. This approach, however, was not to limit the range of possibilities to the often default setting of "just Hubble" imagery. Instead, I wanted to discover astronomical phenomena produced by little known probes like BMDO's MSX satellite. From state-of-the-art adaptive optics and interferometric telescopes at world-wide observatories like ESO's VLT (Very Large Telescope) on Chile's Atacama desert and from some very adept astro-photographers like Stefan Seip, Axel Mellinger, Fred Espenak and Bill and Sally Fletcher.
The bulk of the images we see in What's Out There come from robotic probes or remote-operated telescopes. In your view, is anything lost in translation when a robotic camera observes the universe rather than an astronaut?
Given the evolution of photographic technology, there are significant opportunities from both robotic and human view points. Ultimately, a combination of intuitive mobility and conscious choices gives astronauts opportunities to think out to what they are seeing and respond in terms of camera angles, lenses and quality of light. The Apollo 12 crew's--just before re-entering earth's atmosphere--imagery of an eclipse of the sun by the earth is a testament to seizing the moment. However, the recent history of space exploration photography suggests that among the most memorable images recorded are those from one-of-a-kind probes like ESA's Huygen's that transmitted stunning panoramas while in descent to the surface of Titan, NASA's Lunar Orbiter IV's image of the moon's Mare Orientale and the Mars Rover Opportunity's sublime macro views within Endurance crater or its micro views of pebbles suggesting past evidence of water. I guess, though, we'll have to wait until 2018 or so to begin to experience how astronauts will view their living and exploring on the surface of the moon. Hopefully, a half-century leap from the historic days of Apollo ...
Do you find it disheartening that in all these images, despite all of the manned and unmanned missions, concrete evidence of other life in the universe still eludes us?
No. I actually find it exciting because our exploration, discovery and observation of star systems with potential planets--in just this sector of our Milky Way galaxy--is only in its infancy. So when I consider what I see and understand of our solar system from just the last 15 years of exploration, it stirs both my imagination and confidence that either I, my sons or their children will experience the discovery of "life" somewhere in our solar system or from some worlds in nearby star systems.
The Hubble Space Telescope provide some lovely material for What's Out There, but its future now seems to hinge on whether NASA can send a shuttle flight to service the orbital observatory. In your view, how vital is Hubble to our continuing exploration of space?
Here it is late 2005, not 1965 when astronomers were limited to earth based optical telescopes and analog transmitting probes just beginning to explore the moon, Venus and Mars. With the James Webb Space Telescope not scheduled to service before 2012, a re-serviced Hubble will facilitate eager world-wide astronomers discoveries we can not imagine. And we need, of course, to imagine, to wonder; to hope. Hubble is a remarkable testament to the integrity of human persistence, ingenuity and risk. If ever there was a universal ambassador that makes accessible the awe and wonder of space exploration, it is the Hubble Space Telescope.
Which is more photogenic: planets or stars?
Nothing against stars and nebulas, I'd choose the planets and their moons given the lighting possibilities and the resulting atmospheric and surface textures. However this raises a photographic issue for me: what do the people look like that build these state-of-the-art telescopes and fly these one-of-a-kind robotic space craft that produce the kinds of images found in WOT?
If you could visit any of the places photographed in What's Out There, where would you go and why?
I'd first journey to the Apollo 17 landing site--in low angled sun light--and photographically explore the scope and scale of human evidence left barren on the edge of the Sea of Serenity. Then I'd love to be in any one of Mars's massive river channel basins, like Kasei Vallis--with the right sun angles, the scale of my shadow to the surrounding red desolateness would be sublime. Being able to photograph Saturn from one of the liquid methane formed river valley's on Titan would be a Bonestell-like experience. Looking back and being able to see the sun and earth from the space around Pluto and its moons would offer visualizations and insight Carl Sagen would savor.
Why, in your view, is a fundamental understanding of the universe important for the public-at-large?
Absolutely; since the times of Galileo, astronomy's knowledge has evolved with considerable understanding and visual evidence that only seem to provoke yet more questions as scientist probe farther and farther back into the light years of the early universe. Look, we live in an era where we have tangible images of what earth looks like from the moon, mars and Voyager's "pale-blue-dot" beyond. We also live in an era that has given us the "Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy". At best, I think, we are not just of this remarkable, fragile water world, but of the stars.
Of all the images collected for the book, can you pick one that still jumps out at you from the page and makes you go 'Wow!'?
NGC 6960, a supernova remnant known as the "Veil Nebula" made by the astronomer Travis Rector from NOAO's Kitt Peak National Observatory. My first choice, actually, for the cover of WOT, my imagination soars wordless. Wordless at both its beauty and the questions it provokes--simply and elegantly.
Do you think we'll ever find a limit to what we can observe in the universe?
History suggests that as long as there is an individual will to think and wonder, explore and take risks, there are no limits to mankind's ability in pursuing the limitless. I marvel at both the persistence and passion of George Ellory Hale in engineering larger and larger telescopes that--in 1936--culminated in the 200 inch at Palomar. Now just 70 years later, Stephen Hawking's forward in WOT sums this up best when he concludes, "It would be boring to have nothing left to discover".