Renowned as a member of the iconic rock band Queen, Doctor Sir Brian May could easily be considered the globe’s most famous scientist.
The famed guitarist of Queen and astrophysicist, collaborated with NASA’s mission to explore asteroids through OSIRIS-REx. He assisted researchers in locating a suitable touchdown site on the celestial body, which turned out to be remarkably distinct from their initial expectations and mission design.
From Rock ’n’ Roll to Outer Space
Having completed his doctoral studies in astrophysics in 2007, a remarkable achievement after his more than three-decade hiatus due to Queen’s meteoric rise to prominence in the early 1970s, May engaged in a conversation with Space.com to delve into his involvement in the groundbreaking endeavour — NASA’s inaugural challenge to retrieve a fragment of an asteroid and convey it back to Earth.
The partnership with NASA commenced as a hobby for a space enthusiast, yet swiftly evolved into a matter of significance when the team made an unexpected discovery: the asteroid Bennu, the focal point of the OSIRIS-REx mission, spanning an impressive 1,722 feet (525 m) in width, lacked viable landing locales.
As fate would have it, May’s expertise lay in crafting three-dimensional images derived from singular photographs taken from varied angles, which he then meticulously processed to yield vibrant, lifelike panoramas. The three-dimensional renditions of Bennu, crafted by May, proved invaluable in helping the team comprehend the nature of the asteroid’s intricate terrain. These images ultimately led them to identify a crater that not only appeared to harbour scientifically promising constituents but also displayed a distinct absence of boulders. Following substantial software enhancements, OSIRIS-REx undertook a daring attempt at landing.
The voyage of OSIRIS-REx has now been chronicled in a freshly minted book, featuring a wealth of Brian May’s imagery and showcasing a three-dimensional viewer conceived by the music legend himself. Titled “Bennu: 3-D Anatomy of an Asteroid,” the book is co-authored by May and OSIRIS-REx’s chief investigator, Dante Lauretta. It is available for purchase in the United States through the University of Arizona Press and in the United Kingdom via the London Stereoscopic Company.
May’s reflections on his time as a pivotal member of the pioneering mission shed light on his remarkable journey within the team’s ranks.
“Quite informally, really,” began May, reflecting on the genesis of his involvement. “I am on the outside of NASA, nobody pays me, but I love it. And me and my collaborator Claudia Manzoni generally go around the internet to look for images that we can make into stereos.”
These stereo images, meticulously crafted, offer viewers a window into the three-dimensional splendour of celestial bodies.
“The data is there from all these different missions from NASA, ESA [the European Space Agency] from JAXA [the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency]. There is enough data there to find viewpoints in order to make the stereo images, which we crave, we just love making stereo images.”
London Stereoscopic Company
As the creator of the London Stereoscopic Company, May has been a pioneer in bringing these images to life, and it was this passion that led him to cross paths with Dante Lauretta, the OSIRIS-REx principal investigator.
“So we started to interact, we started to trade emails and pictures and we have become very good friends during the passage of time,” said May.
The collaboration was no mere dalliance; it evolved into a significant challenge, with May and his team providing vital imagery to aid in the mission’s success.
“I am interested in them all,” asserted May. “I was incredibly lucky to be involved in the New Horizons mission… I think the difference is that Dante wanted to involve me and involve us at an early stage so we could actually contribute to the conduct of a mission. That’s the crucial difference.”
Indeed, May’s involvement took centre stage when OSIRIS-REx faced a daunting challenge — finding a suitable landing spot on the perplexing terrain of Bennu.
“I think it was suddenly becoming much more difficult than they expected because Bennu wasn’t a solid object with flat places,” recalled May, lifting a 3D viewer, a tool that became instrumental in the mission’s navigation. “Once you have a stereo image of that particular potential landing site, you can really make that instinctive judgment as to whether things are going to work out.”
May’s imagery provided a lifeline for the scientists, allowing them to virtually stand on the asteroid’s surface and make crucial decisions.
The creation of these mesmerizing stereo images is an art in itself.
“Basically, to make a stereo image, you need two different viewpoints, just as in real life,” said May.
He elaborates on the meticulous process of capturing images for each eye, creating a harmonious 3D effect that mirrors the human experience of depth perception.
The partnership with OSIRIS-REx culminated in a remarkable project — a book that captures the essence of Bennu in both scientific rigour and artistic brilliance.
“We made so many images and it was a labour of love… we quickly realized that this was the world’s first opportunity to make a real atlas of an asteroid,” said May.
The book is not confined to the scientific community; it’s a celestial journey accessible to anyone with a curious mind.
“The book is really aimed at anyone who has an interest in this kind of a subject, anyone who has an interest in what they see when they look up at the night sky,” said May.
The fusion of science and art, presented in a digestible narrative, opens the door to a wider audience. As May envisions the future, he expresses his hopes for continued collaboration.
“I would love to go on cooperating with Dante… I would love to have some stereo data from Apophis to work with and make the world’s first stereo image of that object.”
As the interview drew to a close, one thing became abundantly clear — the cosmic tapestry is infinitely richer when woven together by the hands of artists and scientists. May’s journey with the OSIRIS-REx mission showcases the power of imagination, technology, and collaboration to explore the universe in unprecedented ways.
Featured image: ‘Queen legend Brian May talks NASA asteroid mission collaboration in exclusive interview.’ Credit: Space.com