Burnin’ through the sky: Queen’s Brian May creates stereoscopic image of asteroid

bennu asteroid stereoscopic image bennus boulder 1 stereo pair cross eyed version
A set of stereoscopic images of a large boulder on asteroid Bennu’s southern hemisphere. NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Asteroid Bennu is full of surprises. Not only has it been spewing out plumes of particles, but it also turns out to be much less smooth on its surface than expected, with large boulders densely packed on the rough surface.

Now one particularly large boulder has been imaged: a massive 170-foot long (52 meter) boulder sitting on the southern hemisphere of the asteroid. NASA has released this stereoscopic image of the boulder, consisting of a pair of images taken from slightly different viewpoints. This enables viewers to see the illusion of depth in the image.

If you cross your eyes and relax your vision while looking at the image, you should be able to see the image as if it is in 3D. Tilting your head to the side can help the image come into focus. Or alternatively, if you have access to a stereoscope you can see a version of the image pair optimized for stereoscope viewing here.

And as well as its scientific importance and public interest, there’s another reason this image pair is noteworthy: It was created by Queen guitarist Brian May, along with his colleague Claudia Manzoni. May studied mathematics and physics and started a Ph.D. in astronomy at Imperial College London, but he put his physics career on hold to join the band in 1968.

Decades later, after a hugely successful career as a rock star, he returned to Imperial to complete his Ph.D. in 2007. At the time, he described it to BBC News as “the longest gap year ever” and said “[i]t was a tough decision back then to leave my studies for music.”

Since completing his Ph.D., May has been working on astronomy projects like the analysis of the Bennu data. “I’m proud to have been adopted as a collaborator on the OSIRIS-REx team, along with my colleague Claudia Manzoni,” he said on Instagram. “Our passion is producing stereoscopic (3-D) images from the astounding data that the OSIRIS-REx mission has been collecting. Special thanks to mission PI, Prof. Dante Loretta, for making this possible.

In a final charming tidbit, according to May the boulder on the surface of Bennu has been christened BenBen.

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