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Mapping Asteroid Bennu

The holiday season seems an appropriate time to thank not only my Centauri Dreams readers for their continued high level of discussion in these pages, but also the army of citizen scientists who are out there working on everything from exoplanet detection to asteroid mapping. We saw recently how valuable the work of amateurs like Thiam-Guan Tan can be in confirming a possible exoplanet, while projects like the Habitable Exoplanet Hunting Project continue coming online to push the boundaries of what amateur equipment can do.

Now comes word of the signal contribution made to OSIRIS-REx and its mission to asteroid Bennu. You’ll recall that when the spacecraft arrived at the asteroid, the surface was found to be far more littered with rocks and boulders than anyone had foreseen. Finding a spot for landing and retrieving samples would be no easy task, but it was made substantially more manageable by a team of 3,500 people using their PCs to join in analysis and characterization of the asteroid surface.

These volunteers measured boulders and marked craters, eventually tallying over 14 million annotations of features on Bennu’s emerging global map. Behind all this work was CosmoQuest, a project based at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona.

“It is amazing that more than 3,500 citizen scientists participated in CosmoQuest’s project to map Bennu and help mission scientists find the best place for OSIRIS-REx to collect a sample,” said Pamela L. Gay, Senior Scientist and Senior Education and Communication Specialist at PSI. “This kind of a volunteer effort makes it easier to find safe places to sample and scientifically interesting places to explore.”

Image: This image shows sample site Nightingale, OSIRIS-REx’s primary sample collection site on asteroid Bennu. The image is overlaid with a graphic of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to illustrate the scale of the site. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona.

During the four month period needed to complete the mapping, some volunteers marked more than 500 images (the average was closer to 10), with each image taking up to 45 minutes to complete. It seems worthwhile to list the usernames of those with the greatest number of contributions: MikeCassidy, Nilium, bc2callhome, zathras, joed, dpi209, and pattyg. PSI’s CosmoQuest team will continue working with the Bennu science team to generate science drawn from the mapping data now that the initial site selection has been performed.

If you missed out on the Bennu mapping but would like to get involved, CosmoQuest intends to be launching new citizen science projects some time in 2020, so keep an eye on the site. A good New Year’s resolution might be to get involved in one or more of the many sites catering not just to amateur astronomers but interested laypeople willing to devote time to image analysis. Have a look, for example, at Zooniverse’s list of projects on physics to get an idea of the range. It’s clear that space missions draw real value out of the kind of citizen participation that, not so many years ago, was limited to watching images on a television. Actually joining in efforts that can assist a mission or discover new worlds through its data is no longer a novelty.

Image: All 3,640 names of the Bennu Mappers are superimposed on this Global Mosaic of the Bennu Asteroid that was acquired by the OSIRIS-REx Mission (the image has to be blown up several times to actually see the names). Credit: Created using sources images from NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona.

Let me wish all of you a wonderful holiday and an energized return to work when the season ends. Working on behalf of ideas one believes in is a high vocation. Let’s continue to focus in 2020 on pushing the seemingly intractable problem of interstellar flight forward with new ideas and clarifications of the old.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Harold Shaw December 24, 2019, 16:03

    Would it be too corny to say Centauri Dreams makes the whole year seem like the holiday season? I’m not saying it does, just asking if it would be corny.

    Happy Holidays Paul Gilster and fellow readers.

    • Paul Gilster December 24, 2019, 17:21

      Harold, a very nice thought. Many thanks!

  • John Walker December 24, 2019, 18:59

    Happy holidays to you, Paul and to all you friends of off Earth realms.

    • Paul Gilster December 24, 2019, 21:55

      The same to you, sir!

  • Mike Serfas December 24, 2019, 19:21

    This story is inspirational, but …. WHY does this work? Humans are known for finding faces on Mars, and losing to computers at chess and Go. Is there still really no algorithm for comprehending black and white images of asteroid in hard sunlight that works as well as a crowd of volunteers who have never seen an asteroid? It seems like a surprisingly basic piece of software to be lacking, especially if you have a probe that doesn’t have time to check back with folks on Earth before completing its landing.

    • Robin Datta December 25, 2019, 4:36

      Much of AI is hierarchies upon hierarchies of algorithms. beyond the very basic levels, it is not understood how these algorithms produce their results. Pattern recognition, which separates and identifies objects and background features, is based on such hierarchies of algorithms, with the more sensitive systems involving greater complexity of side connections and more layers to the algorithm.

      These are often built up by enabling the system to write its own modifications to the software and training the system with huge number of objects, or in the case of games, having it play against itself. As a result, the software system may become vastly different from the initial setup: the software itself has rewritten itself, as in biologic evolution single cells produced us. The results can be amazing, but the workings remain quite unknown and not understandable, in effect a “black box”.

      No human or group of humans can just sit down and write anything like it.

      • Michael C Fidler December 26, 2019, 6:59

        Actually a good analogy to humans would be the Savant syndrome or idiot savant:
        “Savant syndrome is a condition in which someone with significant mental disabilities demonstrates certain abilities far in excess of average. The skills at which savants excel are generally related to memory. This may include rapid calculation, artistic ability, map making, or musical ability.”

    • Alex Tolley December 26, 2019, 13:04

      The best technology for pattern/feature classification is deep learning neural nets. To classify an object the training set needs to be labeled. They don’t have that labeled set. The good news is that after this experiment, they may well have enough examples labeled by humans to be able to build a classifier that may work on other asteroids. This would be helpful if we really start to accumulate many more possible targets for sampling. I can imagine small, inexpensive, robotic asteroid explorers being sent out that automatically select good landing sites without human intervention from mission control, that collect and return samples as part of their survey mission for mining and science.

      • Robin Datta December 26, 2019, 19:39

        The algorithms in neural networks until very recently had fixed structure (topology) with programmable function (weighting of connections); within the past decade the structure of the algorithms has also become subject to modification:

        “One common distinction is between algorithms that evolve only the strength of the connection weights for a fixed network topology (sometimes called conventional neuroevolution), as opposed to those that evolve both the topology of the network and its weights…”

        • Alex Tolley December 27, 2019, 13:36

          There are indeed a number of techniques that both improve performance and reduce the computational effort. Then there is the hardware development that includes neuromorphic chips that are slated to be added to “Edge” devices like cellphones to add learning capabilities currently needing servers.

          While the focus is mainly on terrestrial concerns, these developments also bode well for robotic spacecraft that must make their own decisions. This will be increasingly important the farther they venture and vital when they reach exoplanets and must operate entirely autonomously, yet with high cognitive abilities. The rapid development of AI to achieve high performance with low power is part of the reason I am expecting robotic “life” to be our galactic explorers well before any humans can follow.

          • Michael Fidler December 30, 2019, 10:26

            The GOOGLE AI DEEPDREAM extreme images reminded me of the Fractals and the repetitive pattern that are seen in nature. Remembering back to the 1990’s when fractals were just starting to be developed, one of the early researchers was using it for image compression. This made me think, could this be developed in the future to look for life on exoplanets! Any advanced life forms has fractal patterns especially plants. But this could take on planets also as in crater fields repetitive patterns, that AI could recognize. Earth like planets would have different characteristics because of plate tectonics and large areas such as forest that are repetitive even the gas giants have a different fractal pattern. This might be usable with the large telescopes coming online and future interferometers that could tell the difference between crater filled, tectonic terrain, large scale life patterns and gas/ocean worlds from relatively low resolution images. So why not take DeepDreams and have it analyze images of the solar system objects to look for the inherit repetitive patterns in them with an eye toward looking for the fractal patterns of nature.

  • Thomas R Mazanec December 24, 2019, 20:24

    Put Habitable Exoplanet Hunting Project on your list?

  • djlactin December 25, 2019, 2:29

    Happy solstice and a felicitous perihelion!

    • Paul Gilster December 25, 2019, 13:01

      Well said, djlactin, and thanks as always for your long participation here.

  • Michael T December 25, 2019, 2:43

    Citizen science projects give people the chance to participate in something enjoyable and meaningful, and use our pattern-recognition capabilities (which still
    stack up well) and our curiosity.

    Centauri Dreams is an inspiration too! Thanks and happy holidays to Paul and all participants!


    • Paul Gilster December 25, 2019, 13:01

      All best wishes to you as well, Mike. Here’s to a great 2020 for all of us.

  • Michael C Fidler December 26, 2019, 7:15

    This decade has been a huge advancement in our knowledge of the universe and for a larger percentage of the populace to be able to see it. (Android Phones) One warning and a wish for the next decade, to have a very bright deep space million year orbit comet appear. (It’s been awhile since we have had one.) The effect this would have on earth’s population with the realization that such a comet could impact earth with less then six month warning may galvanize the effort for permanent space development.
    Pre-discovery Activity of New Interstellar Comet 2I/Borisov Beyond 5 AU.

    Happy Holidays and best wishes for the most fantastic new decade!

  • Benjamin Jaffe December 26, 2019, 9:14

    It looks like the image with the bennu mappers is only the 550×550 version and there is no redirect to the big version.

  • Michael C Fidler December 27, 2019, 10:56

    Two different takes on “New Spaceship Sail Self-Centers.”

    A technology for propelling spacecraft using a “sail” pushed by light has passed an initial test, with the prototype device staying centered in a laser beam.

    Beam rider’ technology keeps solar sails aligned.

    And the original paper; behind a pay wall.
    Experimental Verification of a Bigrating Beam Rider.
    “An optical beam rider making use of a light sail comprising two opposing diffraction gratings is experimentally demonstrated for the first time. We verify that the illuminated space-variant grating structure provides an optical restoring force, exhibiting stable oscillations when the bigrating is displaced from equilibrium. We further demonstrate parametric cooling by illuminating the sail with synchronized light pulses. This experiment enhances the technical feasibility of a laser-driven light sail based on diffractive radiation pressure.”

    The parametric cooling is another plus especially when high power beams could overheat the sail.

    Something I have been wrestling with is another way that the Terrascope concept could work with this. If the Sun is focused behind the earth via the earth’s atmosphere there will be Terawatts of of optical and infrared energy per second at the focal point. This energy could be used to fire large laser systems energized and used to propel the sail to possibly higher speeds of 50% of light!!! Something like gas or plasma or even crystal lasers or masers. This energy could also be used as a furnace to take asteroids and blow them into bubbles like a glass blowing artist. Anyway, there is all this energy that is being focused out there with no one even using it. I wonder if any spacecraft that flies thru those areas, if the heat and intense light would or has crippled or destroyed it??? Something that has great potential for developing space in zero gravity exist somewhere between the distance of the moon to L2…

    • Michael Fidler December 28, 2019, 11:36

      Two points I forgot to mention.
      1. Could the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) pass thru this zone on its way to L2?
      2. Dangerous comets and asteroid that may be on a impact course for Earth could be blasted or melted to small pieces by the powerful Terawatts lasers long before they encounter earth.

  • Michael Fidler December 28, 2019, 11:44

    This reminds me of the old maps with dragons be here on them and the dangerous sea/space monsters that devour spacecraft!!!

  • sovan acharya February 8, 2020, 16:10

    Good description. I am proud that i marked 117 images as BENNU MAPPERS.