NASA needs your help to bring an asteroid sample back to Earth

Mike Wehner

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission has already accomplished a lot since arriving at the space rock known as Bennu late last year. The spacecraft successfully entered orbit around the asteroid, scanned its surface with a laser, and learned a lot about its surface. But its mission is far from over, and eventually, the probe will need to pull off a daring sample-gathering maneuver in order to return material from the rock’s surface back to Earth.

The mission team was surprised to see just how rocky the surface of Bennu was, and the debris-strewn outer layer is going to complicate the already-tricky sample-gathering task. Now, NASA is asking for our help in deciding where it should touch down.

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One of the biggest challenges for the OSIRIS-REx team is finding areas of the asteroid that aren’t covered in huge boulders or steep craters. Ideally, the spacecraft will snatch a surface sample from an area with as few potentially dangerous features as possible. To that end, NASA built a handy tool that allows you to scan the asteroid’s surface and aid the OSIRIS-REx team by marking things like craters, boulders, and smaller rocks.

“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,” Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator, said in a statement.

The tool, which you can access via the Bennu website, provides a brief tutorial of how to mark each image before letting you loose on random images of the asteroid’s surface which need to be marked. You’ll need to label surface features like boulders and craters and then move on to the next image.

By cross-referencing your markings with those of others who analyzed the same images, the scientists will be able to create an accurate map of the safest and most dangerous areas of the surface. It’s a neat little way of involving science fans in a very important mission, and you should definitely take it for a spin.

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