The public helped NASA pick a landing site on asteroid Bennu

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. NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Citizen scientists have helped to find the perfect landing spot for the OSIRIS-REx craft on asteroid Bennu, orbiting an average of 105 million miles from the sun.

NASA announced it had selected a landing site on Bennu earlier this month, after selecting four candidate landing sites. The asteroid is proving more challenging to land on than had been anticipated, however, as it does not have the flat, smooth surface that the researchers had thought they would find. Instead, the terrain is very rocky, with many large and small boulders that could prove hazardous to landing spacecraft.

In order to find an appropriate landing spot, the researchers needed to comb through images of the asteroid’s surface collected by the craft, and painstakingly identify and flag potential hazards like boulders. This is where they turned to citizen scientists, asking for the public’s help to perform this vital but tedious work.

The citizen scientists came through in a big way, with multiple teams around the world contributing to the project. The teams identified rocks, measured the width of boulders, and checked out the size of craters, then transferred this information to annotations on maps of Bennu’s surface. In total, a team of more than 3,500 citizen scientists made more than 14 million annotations through the CosmoQuest project run by the Planetary Science Institute (PSI).

Plenty of people signed on to log just a few items, completing less than 10 images each. But some people showed extraordinary dedication to the project, working over weeks to mark tens or hundreds of images, each of which took around 45 minutes to complete. A further 68 people marked between 100 and 500 images, and 23 people went above and beyond and marked more than 500 images.

Thanks to the help of these volunteers, the OSIRIS-REx team was able to select the Nightingale landing site knowing that it had both the material available to be sampled and the minimum number of hazards possible. The craft will attempt to land in the site and collect a sample in August 2020.

“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,” Pamela L. Gay, Senior Scientist and Senior Education and Communication Specialist at PSI, said in a statement. “This kind of volunteer effort makes it easier to find safe places to sample and scientifically interesting places to explore.”

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