NASA calls citizen scientists to help with asteroid landing


Mission controllers hope many eyes will make OSIRIS-Rex touchdown safer. Andrew Masterson reports.


Probably not a good place to land. A stereo image of Bennu showing a rather large boulder.

NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

NASA is turning to citizen science to ensure the success of its OSIRIS-Rex mission, which centres on the asteroid Bennu.

The OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft reached its objective on December 23, 2018, and has been orbiting and mapping it ever since.

In a little over a year, however, in July 2020, the mission will move into its penultimate, and by far the most hazardous, phase.

In a manoeuvre that even the normally risk-averse specialists at NASA have dubbed “Touch-and-Go” (TAG), the craft will land briefly on the asteroid, gather up some dirt, stash it away, and then commence its return journey to Earth.

The main problem with this plan, however, is that Bennu is very small, with a diameter of just 492 metres, is a relatively long way away, at an average of 160 million kilometres from the sun. It is also moving very fast, at 28,000 kilometres a second.

And all of that, plainly, means that it is going to be a very tricky job indeed to stick the landing safely.

To minimise the risks, therefore, NASA and the folks at the US non-profit Planetary Science Institute (PSI) have combined forces to build an online platform which hosts all the detailed images of Bennu that OSIRIS-Rex is gathering.

The platform, part of a larger public resource known as CosmoQuest, is now up and running, and the mission controllers are hoping that thousands of citizen scientists will take up the challenge of identifying every single boulder, rock, pebble, crater and crack on the surface – anything, in fact, that might get in the way of a smooth landing and take-off.

“CosmoQuest was the first citizen science platform to achieve surface science results from the general public that are comparable to those of professionals,” says PSI senior researcher Pamela Gay.

“This is precision work but not difficult work. You need a larger screen so you can use a mouse or track pad to make accurate marks. There is an interactive tutorial to teach you everything you need to know, and the CosmoQuest team is here to help you.”

The virtual Bennu can be found here.

  1. http://Bennu.cosmoquest.org
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