When the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft focused on its target, Bennu's asteroid, the object changed from a vague point to a very wavy world full of sharp contrasts. But the images do not produce themselves.
It takes a core imaging team consisting of half a dozen people, plus collaborators from all over the world, to manage three cameras on OSIRIS-REx: Black and white PolyCam and MapCam colors, which have captured images of their new world, plus SamCam, which will help arm spacecraft sampling picks the target.
Space.com sits with Dathon Golish, a member of the imaging team, at the annual American Geophysical Union conference in Washington, DC, 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 choose the favorite camera trio, he would choose SamCam, "a small family baby," because it was often ignored.) This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Space.com: What has been the most fun part of the mission so far?
Dathon Golish: Honestly, the first high resolution image that we got in early December. They might really take my breath. … there is this dramatic lighting, and they are the highest resolution we will have until February. That, woo – that's really cool.
Space.com: Can you talk about how these images have worked so far?
Golish: So far, it's interesting. Divide the mission when we move from the astronomical phrase to the predetermined phase, where Bennu is the real thing right in front of us, very cool. … When Bennu switched from a small blob escaping to this beautiful object in the sky, it was very interesting. Somewhat challenging, just a kind of understanding of how to deal with that transition – not too difficult, just having to think a little differently about the image.
And as [Bennu] more and more resolved and more detailed, the camera really – I can't say it impressed me, because I was part of the team and it seemed to be safe on its own – but I was very happy how they were done. They have taken some amazing pictures, and I can only imagine there will be better.
Space.com: Are there certain angles or features that you expect them to catch?
Golish: Already, we have seen several interesting places: large rocks on Bennu, dark spots on Bennu and bright spots on Bennu. There are very interesting variations. … just see those things, one, close-and-personal, and, two, colored, will be interesting.
During the past few months, Bennu became the focus when I approached. Now that I'm here, I will fly around the asteroid and study it in detail. All data that I collect will help my team choose a place for sampling in 2020. #WelcomeToBennu Details: https://t.co/9pYBuYxA8X pic.twitter.com/CnzVwwRz5n
– NASA's OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) December 3, 2018
Space.com: For people who don't understand what to do in making these images, what do you expect from your work and about the team in general?
Golish: This may not be a surprise, but only a large number of people and talents and attentions enter into this process. In the end, this is a 1 megapixel image, but there is a lot of thought that goes into the whole process – from designing a mission [to] designing cameras to fulfill mission objectives, implementing those cameras [and] people who plan missions, navigate the spaceship. And then, at the end of the very long process, the pictures come to people like me who can turn them into hopefully more interesting images that highlight the kind of information that we find interesting about Bennu.
It's a very long chain, and it's easy to cut it into a really cool picture and it's very fun to look at, and you can say, "Wow!" But there are many things that came before that. I hope people have an appreciation for that [that], because people along the way through the chain may not stand next to the picture in the end, but they are as important as the process. So it's very nice to acknowledge all those steps. [In the Clean Room: Up-Close Look at NASA’s OSIRIS-REx]
Space.com: Will the time between now and the orbit of December 31 be a busy period for you?
Golish: This is focused specifically on the navigation team. They want to be able to understand how to navigate safely around this body so they can go into orbit. So, technically, that is the time when we retreat a little. We get, hopefully, what I'm sure will be some beautiful color images [the second week of December] – as part of their navigation campaign, we can sneak in some color images – and that will be our focus for the next month or so. It will be our best color image until March, so we want to see what interesting things we can see with it. And meanwhile, it's preparing for the end of February, which is our big imaging campaign. … We want to get ready for six months. It will be a pretty heavy work.
Space.com: Are there any major projects or challenges that you want to overcome between now and then?
Golish: Honestly, so far, everything has gone very well. You always wait for unexpected things to appear in your process or in data or whatever, and the fact that everything has gone very smoothly so far, once again, is evidence for all those who have done everything to this point. … There may be hiccups here or there, but the process flows pretty much as we expect, which, you know, is a great relief. Also, we thank you for that, because that only means we arrive at interesting things faster. We are not too interested in this detail. We can see some of these results we've been waiting for, in my case five years, in some cases people, 10, 15 years.