Background On Bennu Mappers: Rocks All The Way Down

May 23, 2019 | Behind the Scenes, Bennu Mappers, Citizen Science

Yesterday we launched a new project on CosmoQuest: Bennu Mappers!]  It’s been 3 years in the making and we are so pleased to finally share it with you.

In 2015, I was asked if CosmoQuest could lay out a plan to help OSIRIS-REx select a rock it could safely bring home. Of course I said yes.

Now, I’ve spent most of my adult career purposely working on projects that didn’t have a time crunch and that use already existing data. This is because my PhD was plagued with clouds, a failed X-ray telescope, and more. I got burned by the Universe and wanted my science to be a bit safer.

But with the OSIRIS-REx Mission, there is a need that can only be fulfilled with citizen science. This little mission (literally – the spacecraft is TINY!) needs to have the surface of the Asteroid Bennu mapped between May 22 and July 10. That gives us just 49 days to map this world.

  • We know we can’t map Bennu using software. Machine learning is just starting to be able to map surfaces, and it only works if it has been trained using hundreds of images that are exactly the kind of terrain it will map. To train a machine to do this job… we would have to do all of the mapping first!
  • We also know that we cannot map Bennu by ourselves. Each image requires at least 5 minutes for me to map it. That translates to 40-ish hours of effort for just the first batch of images! And there are more batches to come. We would like to have at least 15 people look at  – and map – each image. There is just too much to do for us to pull this off alone.
  • Finally we can’t map Bennu with the help of just our students. It’s summer holiday. They are in transit, in classes, and working hard to pay for their next semester of classes. The timing is off. Sometimes science doesn’t care about that vacation you had planned. It needs done when it needs done.

However, we realised in 2015 that we COULD map Bennu with you. All of you working together can make it possible for us to map the asteroid Bennu by our July 10th deadline. So back in September 2016 when our little spacecraft made its way off the Earth, we started planning.

Launch of OSIRIS-REx from Florida in September 2016

In September 2016, I took my as many members of my team that were free to Kennedy to watch OSIRIS-REx launch off our world. This is our mission, our motivation, our drive to show what Citizen Science is capable of achieving.

The CosmoQuest team at the OSIRIS-REx launch

This picture, taken at the launch, shows mostly students: Computer Science, Psych, Management. Last week I got drinks with the majority of these folks. Sadly, due to funding cuts we’re not all still working together, but we are still chasing dreams (and drinks) together.

When we first started coding Bennu Mappers we had no idea what Bennu would look like. The best we had were grainy images like these Radar returns from Goldstone below. We learned from previous missions such as Rosetta and the Rubber Duck-shaped 67P/C-G that is anything was possible.

So… when we started Bennu Mappers we used Itokowa data as a starting point to figure out what we would need and to set up all the tools. Itokowa is a cute peanut of an asteroid that has a nice mixture of rocks, boulders, craters, and smoothness. This is what we expected.

By the way – OSIRIS-REx isn’t the only mission chasing asteroids at the moment. Our scientific sister, JAXA Hayabusa 2, arrived at Ryugu last spring and, um, Ryugu is a rubble pile. I think my exact reaction was “H*** S*** I don’t want to map something like that!!” Each rock is potential death.

As OSIRIS-Rex drew closer to Bennu in December, 2018, we started to realise that our space rock is more like Ryugu than like Itokowa. It is rocks all the way down.

Rocks. All. The. Way. Down.

Zooming in on Bennu! From:

In March of this year we got our first global mosaic of Bennu. Using this and related data products, a team of scientists with OSIRIS-Rex used a different version of our mapping tools to find the safest areas they could on Bennu. This is where we are starting.

On May 15, we took delivery of a sample of the first hi-resolution images we would be mapping. I looked at the images, made coffee, and pushed myself to see how we could best get everything ready for you to dive in.

Oh… Did I mention that I had started to come down with bronchitis??? Great timing body.

Bennu has a lot of rocks!

For the past 7 days, in a haze of cough syrup, one urgent care visit, and a whole lot of collaboration with my team, we have ingested the new images and tried to put together an entirely new tutorial. Unfortunately, we didn’t get that done. Science can’t always wait. So stay tuned.

But wait! There’s MORE!

Our mapping site isn’t all there is. We don’t want you to come and just autonomously map online without interacting with your fellow mappers. That’s not how science is done. We want you to interact like colleagues:

When I was a student, our data sets were smaller. I would get handed instructions put together by a former student or postdocs, and I worked thru things talking with my professor. The goal was to work toward the best technique using iterative design and good communications. Flexibility is key.

With Bennu Mappers, we’re learning as we go. We will upgrade as we find the best way to do this together. Will you collaborate with us? Together, we can leave no rock unmeasured, no hazard unmarked, and keep OSIRI-Rex safe and doing science.

Let’s just be nominal.



  1. Carnival of Space #613 | Citizen Science - […] Background On Bennu Mappers: Rocks All The Way Down […]
  2. Carnival of Space 615 – With a Village - […] Cosmoquest – Background On Bennu Mappers: Rocks All The Way Down […]
  3. Carnival of Space 615 – MEGAVIJESTI - […] Cosmoquest – Background On Bennu Mappers: Rocks All The Way Down […]
  4. Ep. 584: Sample Return Missions from Asteroids | Astronomy Cast - […] Background On Bennu Mappers: Rocks All The Way Down (CosmoQuest) […]

Got Podcast?

365 Days of Astronomy LogoA community podcast.

URL * RSS * iTunes

Astronomy Cast LogoTake a facts-based journey.

URL * RSS * iTunes * YouTube

Visión Cósmica LogoVisión Cósmica


Escape Velocity Space News LogoEscape Velocity Space News
New website coming soon!

Become a Patron!
CosmoQuest and all its programs exist thanks the generous donations of people like you! Become a patron & help plan for the future while getting exclusive content.