Making Asteroid Images Look Great: How OSIRIS-REx's Team Creates Those Bennu Photos

As the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft zeroed in on its target, the asteroid Bennu, the object transformed from a fuzzy dot into an incredibly bumpy world full of sharp contrasts. But those images don't produce themselves.

It takes a core imaging team of half a dozen people, plus collaborators from around the world, to manage the three cameras on OSIRIS-REx: the black and white PolyCam and the color MapCam, which have already captured images of their new world, plus SamCam, which will help the spacecraft's sampling arm choose its target.

Space.com sat down with Dathon Golish, a member of the imaging team, at the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C., earlier this month to talk about the images OSIRIS-REx has captured so far and what we can expect to see next. [OSIRIS-REx: NASA's Asteroid Sample-Return Mission in Pictures]

(He said that if he had to pick a favorite of the camera trio, he'd choose SamCam, "the little baby of the family," because it's frequently overlooked.) This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Space.com: What's been the most fun part of the mission so far?

Dathon Golish: Honestly, the first really high-res images we got at the very beginning of December. Those might have genuinely took my breath away. … There's this dramatic lighting, and they're the highest resolution we're gonna have until February. It was, woo — it was pretty cool.

A mosaic image of the asteroid Bennu based on PolyCam images taken on Dec. 2, 2018, the instrument's best view of the asteroid until February.
(Image credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

Space.com: Can you talk about what these images have been like to work with so far?

Golish: So far, it's been interesting. Dividing the mission as we've transitioned from the astronomical phrase to the resolved phase, where Bennu is a real thing right in front of us, has been cool. … As Bennu went from this little, fuzzy blob to this gorgeous thing in the sky, it's been interesting. A little challenging, just sort of understanding how to deal with that transition — not fundamentally hard, just having to think a little bit differently about the images.

And as [Bennu] has gotten more and more resolved and there's been more and more detail, the cameras have really — I can't say impressed me, because I was part of the team and that seems self-congratulatory — but I've been really happy how they've performed. They've taken some amazing pictures already, and I can only imagine there'll be better.

Space.com: Are there any particular angles or features that you're looking forward to them capturing?

Golish: Already, we've seen a few interesting spots: the big boulders on Bennu, the dark spots on Bennu and the bright spots on Bennu. There's very interesting variation. … Just seeing that stuff, one, up-close-and-personal, and, two, in color, will be interesting.

Space.com: For people who don't understand what goes into creating these images, what do you wish they knew about your job and about the team at large?

Golish: It's maybe not a surprise, but just the tremendous amount of people and talent and thoughtfulness that goes into a process like this. At the end of the day, it's one 1-megapixel image, but there's a tremendous amount of thought that goes into that whole process — from designing the mission [to] designing the cameras to meet the mission's goals, implementing those cameras [and] the people who plan the mission, navigate the spacecraft. And then, at the very end of that very long process, the images coming down to people like me who get to turn them into hopefully even more-interesting images that highlight the type of information we think is interesting about Bennu.

That's a tremendously long chain, and it's easy to whittle it down to a picture that is very cool and very fun to look at, and you can say, "Wow!" But there's just a lot that comes before that. I hope people have an appreciation for [that], because those people all the way up through that chain maybe don't stand next to the picture at the end, but they are just as important to that process. So, it's fun to acknowledge all those steps. [In the Clean Room: Up-Close Look at NASA's OSIRIS-REx]

Space.com: Is the time between now and orbital insertion on Dec. 31 going to be a busy period for you?

Golish: It's notionally focused on the navigation team. They want to be able to understand how to safely navigate around this body so that they can go into orbit. So, technically, that is a time where we're stepping back a little bit. We're getting, hopefully, what I'm sure will be some beautiful color images [the second week of December] — as part of their navigation campaign, we were able to sneak in some color images — and that will be our focus for the next month or so. They'll be our best color images until March, so we want to see what interesting things we can see with those. And in the meantime, it's preparing for the end of February, which is our big imaging campaign. … We want to be as ready as possible for that six months. That will be a fair amount of intense work.

Space.com: Are there any key projects or challenges that you want to tackle between now and then?

Golish: Honestly, thus far, things have worked very well. You always wait for the unexpected things to pop up in your process or in the data or whatever, and the fact that everything has gone so smoothly so far is just, again, a testament to all the people who have worked on everything up until this point. … Maybe there's a hiccup here or there, but that process is flowing pretty much like we expected it to, which is, you know, a big relief. Also, we're grateful for it, because it just means we get to the interesting stuff that much quicker. We're not held up by these details too much. We get to see some of these results that are what we've been waiting for, for in my case five years, in some cases people's cases, 10, 15 years.

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us @Spacedotcom and Facebook. Original article on Space.com.

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