I love the Solar System, the little neighborhood of our tiny pale blue dot. I dream about how human exploration might shape it–from floating colonies on Venus to magnificent cities under the surface of Mars to domed outposts in Iapetus, the Death Star of Saturn. The Planets, a new book by Nirmala Nataraj with a preface by Bill Nye, is a perfect vessel for those fantasies.
The book features hundreds of photographs of the Solar System from NASA’s archives. Everything from a light show on Jupiter to the snowman-shaped craters of the asteroid Vesta is revealed in glorious detail. “I worked pretty closely with some of NASA’s agencies to ensure that I was accessing some of the more noteworthy images—pictures that were not merely stunning but also captured the remarkable discoveries and technological advances of NASA spacecraft over the decades,” Nataraj told me in an email. That includes the very first photo of Earth from the moon. It was snapped by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1, which mapped the surface of the moon to prepare for the Apollo missions, in 1966. That also includes high-definition images of Pluto taken from the New Horizons spacecraft. New Horizons‘s nine-year, 3-billion-mile-long journey to Pluto and back resulted in the clearest images of this dwarf planet to date.
Of all of the planets, Nataraj loves Saturn the most “if only because everything that came out of [the Saturn probe] Cassini, including raw images of the planet, moons, and rings, were pure works of art. There is something about these images that feels multisensory and also reminds me of the music of the spheres—almost as if the arrangements, shadows, light are sound in motion.”
To me, every planet and celestial body in the Solar System reminds me of music, better described by Carl Sagan in The Pale Blue Dot:
For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. […] Herman Melville, in Moby Dick, spoke for wanderers in all epochs and meridians: “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas…” […] Maybe it’s a little early. Maybe the time is not quite yet. But those other worlds–promising untold opportunities—beckon. Silently, they orbit the Sun, waiting.”
Since none of us mere mortals are going to any of these planets any time soon–unless you are Elon–Nataraj’s The Planets is the best thing next to getting a telescope and going camping in the Valley of the Gods. A most beautiful ultimate planetary compendium.