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Review: Imaging Our Solar System

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Imaging Our Solar System: The Evolution of Space Mission Cameras and Instruments
by Bernard Henin
Springer, 2022
paperback, 293 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-3-030-90498-2

It is easy to take for granted the torrent of images that come from planetary probes. Long-lived orbiters and rovers can generate huge volumes of images over the years to the delight of scientists as well as hobbyists, who are encouraged to do their own analysis and remixing of images from those publicly funded missions.

That state of abundance is a far cry from the early years of planetary exploration, when getting only a handful of images back from the Moon, Mars, or Venus was a triumph of cutting-edge engineering. In Imaging Our Solar System, Bernard Henin examines the history of planetary exploration through the lens of the cameras used by those missions.

“You know, when you get back, you’re going to be a national hero… But those photographs, if you get great photos, they’ll live forever.”

While early reconnaissance satellites could take images on film that were then placed in capsules for return to Earth, that was not an option for robotic missions even to the Moon, requiring some sort of electronic system to convert images into signals that could be transmitted back to Earth. Systems to scan film gave way to television cameras and photometers and then to the CCD detectors that are used on nearly planetary spacecraft camera today.

The book offers a whirlwind review of the history of planetary exploration and the development and use of the cameras they carried. While a lot of the planetary exploration aspect of the book will be familiar to many, there are some insights and interest anecdotes about the development of cameras. For example, the first images of the far side of the Moon, taken by the Soviet Union’s Luna 3, benefited from American film camera technology: that mission used film based on that the US developed for cameras flown on high-altitude balloons that crashed over Soviet territory. The plumes of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, first seen by the Cassini mission, could have been detected by the Voyagers decades earlier, and recent reanalysis of Voyager 1 wide-angle camera images using modern software revealed them.

One exception to this use of electronics to capture and/or transmit images was the Apollo program: the astronauts, of course, could return film with them to Earth. Those astronauts, the book states, were trained by a photographer, Richard Underwood, who instilled in them the value of photography: “You know, when you get back, you’re going to be a national hero… But those photographs, if you get great photos, they’ll live forever. Your key to immortality is in the quality of the photographs and nothing else.”

When Artemis astronauts land on the moon later in the decade, they’ll likely be using CCD and other electronic imagers, just like space station astronauts to today. That will help bring a new wave of images from another world for us to study and enjoy back on Earth, ones that, like their Apollo predecessors captured on film, will live forever.

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