Send a Message to an Asteroid ... and Back!


An artist's concept of OSIRIS-REx flying over the asteroid Bennu. | Image courtesy of NASA/Goddard
An artist's concept of OSIRIS-REx flying over the asteroid Bennu. | Image courtesy of NASA/Goddard

Want to send a message to the surface of an asteroid? Here's your chance -- and you've got until September 30th to make it happen.

In 2016, NASA will launch a spacecraft called the Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, a.k.a. "OSIRIS-REx." This spacecraft will be part of NASA's upcoming slate of asteroid research missions, eventually to include the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which will capture a small asteroid and steer it into a stable orbit around our moon for easy continuous access in the 2020s. OSIRIS-REx itself is scheduled to intercept the near-Earth asteroid known as 101955 Bennu in 2019, scoop up at least 60 grams of Bennu's regolith (loose, dusty surface material) and return the samples to Earth in 2023. By studying these samples, the scientists behind the OSIRIS-REx mission hope to learn more about the early history of our solar system, answering questions about the origins of the water and organic molecules now abundant on Earth.

But here's where we come in. From now until September 30, NASA has invited the public to submit short messages and photos through social media to be considered for inclusion aboard OSIRIS-REx, leaving Earth for about seven years and returning in 2023. The messages should be related to space science-ideally, predictions about what humanity will have achieved in space exploration by the year the spacecraft comes home. Will we have a permanent or semi-permanent private settlement on Mars? Will we have discovered microbial life forms somewhere other than Earth? At the end of the submission period, the mission team will select 50 tweets and 50 images to place on board. The Fw:Thinking team will be submitting ideas with our fingers crossed. Here's my first prediction: When 2023 comes and they open up the box, seeing what we Earthlings got wrong will be even more interesting than seeing what we got right.

Here are the instructions on how to join in: http://www.asteroidmission.org/timecapsule

If you need any more incentive to participate, please join me on a quick digression, wherein we observe a few intriguing facts about Bennu:

1.) Of all the known space-projectiles that might one day collide with our planet, NASA's Near-Earth Object program rates Bennu as one of the most dangerous according to the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale. But don't freak out: That risk is still very, very low. Another motivation for the OSIRIS-REx intercept mission is that it may help develop knowledge that could protect us if an asteroid ever were bearing down directly on Earth. By learning things like how to intercept asteroids and maneuver unmanned spacecraft around them, we may have a better chance of being able to alter the trajectory of an Earth-bound asteroid, should the need arise.

2.) Bennu has a diameter of 492 meters, meaning it is about 60% of the height of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and a little more than 1.6 times the height of the Eiffel Tower. Below, I have awkwardly stitched together a very rough scale comparison of the three objects (350 pixels, vertical = about 830 meters). Enjoy my art:

Rough scale comparison of the asteroid Bennu, the Burj Khalifa and the Eiffel Tower. | Burj Khalifa: MasterLu/iStock/Thinkstock | Eiffel Tower: VitalyEdush/iStock/Thinkstock
Rough scale comparison of the asteroid Bennu, the Burj Khalifa and the Eiffel Tower. | Burj Khalifa: MasterLu/iStock/Thinkstock | Eiffel Tower: VitalyEdush/iStock/Thinkstock

3.) Bennu was given its moniker by a North Carolina third-grader named Michael Puzio. Formerly, scientists referred to the asteroid as 1999 RQ36. The boy's proposed name was formally adopted by the International Astronomical Union Committee for Small Body Nomenclature in 2013, after Puzio submitted his suggestion to a "Name that Asteroid!" contest and won over the judges' presumably icy space-hearts. Bennu is originally the title of an ancient Egyptian bird-god, which may bear some mythological relationship to the legendary phoenix. Also: Osiris, as in OSIRIS-REx? Another member of the ancient Egyptian pantheon. There's something going on here...

As for the idea of a space-bound time capsule: I have a faint memory. At some point when I was in elementary school, my class created a time capsule. It was a box full of items to be opened in some number of years-I want to say 20, but I can't be sure. What I can be almost sure of is that it must have been full of pogs-and personal future predictions scrawled in gel pen that begin, "When I become super rich by selling off my 97 collectible Beanie Babies..." Where the adults hid that box, I don't know. My fuzzy memory says they buried it. More likely, it went home with some teacher and became a footrest. But whatever happened to the time capsule and all the ones like it from decades past around the world, kids today have an opportunity we didn't: To contribute to a snapshot of 2014 that will wait out the clock not in a dusty drawer or a hole in the ground or even a safe deposit box, but in outer space. We'll either get our astro-messages back when the probe returns safely, or if OSIRIS is lost, we'll all know that we created something that is forever a part of the universe beyond. I love it.