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Asteroid Mystery Box

Asteroid collision led to the building of planets (artist concept)

Credits: NASA, JPL-Caltech

This activity demonstrates how astronomers can study asteroids by comparing direct observations with laboratory studies done on Earth.

Scientists get specific clues about new discoveries from scientific instruments. No single instrument can provide all the information necessary to explain everything about a new object.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft contains 5 scientific instruments. One of these is OLA, the Canadian laser instrument that will create a 3D map of asteroid Bennu. Scientists will use information from all 5 instruments to choose where to collect a sample.

You will need

Credit: University of Arizona

How it works

  1. Ask the participant to reach into the unknown and hold onto one item in the box – no peeking!
  2. Ask questions about the item:
    • Is it heavy or light?
    • Is it smooth or rough?
    • Is it hard or soft?
    • What shape is it?
    • What is it made of?
    • How big is it?
    • What color is it? (trick question for humor)
    • Do you think you have held anything like this before?
    • What do you think the object is?
  3. With the participant still holding onto the item, open the lid to see what it is.
  4. Point out that there are a few tricky items in the box that participants could not have known without looking.

Extra hints or suggestions

Some observers insist they can tell the color of an object with their fingertips. This is a good illustration of bias at work. It is an interpretation, not an observation. If the participant is not able to guess or guesses wrong, it is okay. That is the challenge that scientists face if they have never seen something before.

This activity is courtesy of the University of Arizona and the OSIRIS-REx Ambassadors program.

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