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"Otherworlds" exhibit casts new light on space using raw data

Explosions in the sky light-years away are coming into focus in ways never seen before, as are the very active volcanoes on a Jupiter moon and the rings of Saturn.

They are the spectacular interstellar landscapes of our solar system, usually reserved for space missions, that are now on display for all to see at London's Natural History Museum, reports CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti.

CBS News got a first look at American photographer and writer Michael Benson's exhibition, "Otherworlds," before it opened to the public.

'I'm quite proud of this one," Benson said of one photo, "because Saturn is such a showstopper" -- a showstopper not just for the image's unbelievable clarity and detail, but also for the unusual process that gave Benson an up-close-and-personal glimpse of planets often cloaked in mystery.

Saturn, from the exhibit "Otherworlds."
Michael Benson

Each photo is actually a composite of a series of specialized images capturing different details. The series of photos are taken not by Benson -- or any human for that matter -- but snapped by NASA spacecraft over the span of the agency's 60-year history.

'That's part of the fun of it, of course. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle of images, so typically you'll see an even more astonishing thing as you assemble it," Benson said.

It's a jigsaw puzzle that took Benson years to complete. The end result is an exhibit of 77 stunning composites -- each one a perfect fusion of art and science.

"In a technical sense this is very clearly an art exhibition," said Dr. Joe Michalski, a scientist at the Natural History Museum. "We hope that the people who appreciate art will come here for that. We hope that people who come here for science will be pleasantly surprised by the art."

And as with all things art, there is some interpretation. Many of the original photos are received at NASA in black and white, and Benson uses historical and scientific data to determine the most accurate tones.

"Sometimes I say, 'Oh darn, I have to reprint this,'" Benson said laughing.

Benson's work is casting new light on space, much like Ansel Adams' photography revealed America's National Parks.

"I did not obviously haul my box camera on a tripod to Saturn, and I wish I had that possibility!" Benson said.

A self-described space geek, Benson said that as a kid he grew up wanting to go to space. Instead, he's bringing the solar system back to Earth.

"I think it's part of growing up as a species to recognize where we are in the universe," he said. "That's part of what I'm doing, I think -- trying to bring the message, with little bit of help from NASA and the European Space Agency."

The "Otherworlds" exhibition runs through May 15.