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Brian May's 3D Magic: How Queen Guitarist Helped Save NASA's OSIRIS-REx Mission

On September 24, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will complete a harrowing journey back through Earth's atmosphere, returning from its mission to Bennu, a "potentially hazardous asteroid" with alarming odds of impacting Earth. The mission faced numerous obstacles, but ultimately, it owes its success to an unexpected collaborator: Queen guitarist and astrophysicist, Brian May.

The OSIRIS-REx mission aimed to investigate whether life on Earth originated from outer space, a question that intrigued scientists for years. However, for an intense 22 months, the mission hung in the balance as scientists struggled to find a safe landing spot on the treacherous asteroid's surface.

Brian May played a crucial role in ensuring the mission's success. The legendary guitarist meticulously crafted 3D images of Bennu's rugged terrain, helping mission leaders identify secure landing sites. This crucial assistance enabled OSIRIS-REx to secure a 2-ounce sample (60 grams) of Bennu's surface that could contain extraterrestrial precursors to life on Earth.

In an interview with Live Science, May expressed his fascination with asteroids, stating, "You think asteroids are pieces of junk out there that might hit us, and we're very scared of them — whatever. You don't realize that actually, they're probably responsible for us being here."

Bennu, categorized as a rubble-pile asteroid, is an 85.5 million-ton (77.5 million metric tons) amalgamation of rock chunks and boulders loosely held together by gravity. Despite its appearance as a seemingly inert celestial object, closer examination revealed intriguing features such as veins of carbonate rock and carbon-rich organic material. These findings suggest that Bennu's parent body, which formed during the early days of the solar system, might have harbored the earliest building blocks of life.

The OSIRIS-REx mission, short for the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, commenced in 2016, launching from Florida and navigating a complex trajectory before reaching Bennu's orbit in December 2018.

However, the true challenge lay in the landing. Initial thermal surveys of Bennu indicated a fine-grained surface, similar to a beach. But upon arrival, OSIRIS-REx encountered a jagged terrain strewn with sharp boulders that thwarted the original landing plan. The team had to adapt, using Bennu's feeble gravity to maneuver the spacecraft into a tight orbit and search for a safe landing location.

Dante Lauretta, the mission leader and a professor of planetary science and cosmochemistry at the University of Arizona, described the challenge of finding a suitable landing spot as daunting. They employed OSIRIS-REx's onboard cameras to meticulously map Bennu's surface, and this is where Brian May's contributions came into play. May and his collaborator Claudia Manzoni transformed pairs of side-by-side images into stereoscopic images, providing a three-dimensional perspective that was vital for assessing potential landing sites.

After an exhaustive 22-month evaluation, the researchers identified a site they named Nightingale, where OSIRIS-REx successfully touched down on October 20, 2020. To secure the landing, the spacecraft used its Touch-and-Go Sample-Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), which fired nitrogen gas to stabilize the spacecraft and collect dust and rock samples from Bennu's surface.

The samples collected by OSIRIS-REx hold the promise of unlocking mysteries about the origins of life on Earth. Although the exact composition remains unknown, scientists are eager to study the materials collected in the mission.

Sara Russell, a professor of planetary sciences and leader of the Planetary Materials Group, expressed her anticipation, saying, "We don't know until we get it, but just looking at the images that Dante and Brian have sent back, it looks like it's full of lots of different kinds of rock, some of which are really fragile, which means they would never have got to Earth as meteorites."

The story of Bennu and OSIRIS-REx's remarkable journey is now documented in a new book titled "Bennu: 3-D Anatomy of an Asteroid." Co-authored by Brian May and OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta, the book includes stunning 3D images created by May and offers a deeper understanding of this extraordinary mission. It is available in the U.S. from the University of Arizona Press and in the U.K. from the London Stereoscopic Company.

As OSIRIS-REx prepares to return with its precious cargo, it marks a significant achievement in space exploration, thanks in part to the unexpected collaboration of a legendary rock guitarist and astrophysicist, Brian May.

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