Help NASA Find A Safe Sampling Spot On Bouldery Bennu

Wow — what a mess! This image shows the wide variety of boulder shapes, sizes and compositions found on asteroid Bennu. It was taken by the PolyCam camera on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on March 28 from a distance of 2.1 miles (3.4 km). The view is 164 feet (50 meters) across while the light-colored boulder at top is 16 feet (4.8 meters) tall. NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Want to hunt rocks on an asteroid 84 million miles away? NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu needs extra pairs of eyes to help pick a safe sampling site and to look for other curiosities.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has been at Bennu since Dec. 3, 2018, mapping the asteroid in detail, while the mission team searches for a sample collection site that is safe, conducive to sample collection and worthy of closer study. The photo hints at just how tricky it might be to gather a sample from its surface. I mean, that’s a lot of rocks! Each one poses a hazard. That’s why the team is looking for citizen scientist volunteers to help create a “hazard map” by counting boulders.

One of Bennu’s hemisphere’s photographed from 15 miles (24 km) away by OSIRIS-REx. Bennu is only 1,614 feet (492 meters) across and a classic “boulder pile” asteroid made of debris from collisions between larger asteroids. NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

“For the safety of the spacecraft, the mission team needs a comprehensive catalog of all the boulders near the potential sample collection sites, and I invite members of the public to assist the OSIRIS-REx mission team in accomplishing this essential task,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator.

NASA is partnering with CosmoQuest that supports citizen science initiatives. If you participate you’ll be doing the same things planetary scientists do: measure Bennu’s boulders and map its rocks and craters by using a simple web interface. I especially like that you can make note of other features that catch your eye that you think researchers should check out. All you need is a computer with a decent-sized monitor and a mouse or trackpad that you can move in small increments. To help you get started, the CosmoQuest team provides a tutorial and assistance through the voice-and-text Discord app.

This photo, taken from 2.2 miles (3.5 km), shows a view of Bennu’s rocky surface in a region near the equator. NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

The goal is to keep the spacecraft safe while it’s attempting to grab a sample of Bennu. Sampling is scheduled for next July; whatever the probe gathers will be returned to in September 2023. The samples will help scientists to piece together the story of the evolution of the planets and the Earth in particular. Bennu is a carbon -and-water-rich asteroid. Similar asteroids mayhave contributed to our planet’s water inventory 4.5 billion years ago when the Earth took form. For all you know the coffee or soda you’re sipping may have originated in a multitude of Bennu-like asteroid collisions!

Jump in now to help even if it’s only a little. You’ll experience the thrill of participating in an important scientific endeavor and have the opportunity to get to know an asteroid rock by rock. The campaign / program continues through July 10, so you’ve got about six weeks. Once primary and secondary sites are selected, the spacecraft will begin closer reconnaissance to map the two sites to a resolution better to less than half an inch (centimeter).

Become a volunteer at Now, let’s start clambering!

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