These embroidery pieces show the four birds after which the OSIRIS-REx team has named the candidate sample sites on the surface of the asteroid. The original bird icons were designed by Heather Roper, and embroidered by yours truly.


NASA’s OSIRIS-REx is a spacecraft mission sent to the asteroid Bennu to collect a sample from the surface and return it to Earth for scientists to study. Bennu is what we call a rubble pile asteroid, a collection of boulders, rocks, and dust loosely bound together by gravity. From ground-based observations, we knew that Bennu was made of carbonaceous chondrite materials, which means that it contains organic molecules that were needed in order for life to evolve on Earth.  Because they lack surface processes like volcanism or planet tectonics that change and recycle material over time, the rocks that make up small asteroids are older and more pristine. The samples OSIRIS-REx will collect remain relatively unchanged since they formed, and contain records of the earliest history of our solar system.

Objects in the solar system we study and visit up close each have a specific theme chosen by NASA and/or the mission team, and approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). This theme is used to assign names to the features on the objects surface. The OSIRIS-REx team went through a few different theme options before one was approved. Since the asteroid is named after Bennu, an ancient Egyptian deity and heron, the theme we were given is “mythological birds and bird-like creatures.” We have had a lot of interesting discussions about mythology as a continuum from ancient to modern times, and what determines how culturally important an idea is, or how long it takes for that importance to be established. I’ll leave all that for another time and just say that we are interpreting the theme broadly over a range of timescales, and hope to have names approved reflecting both ancient and modern mythologies. We are also using the names of real birds, because real birds are awesome.

All spacecraft images credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona. All bird icon images credit: Heather Roper/University of Arizona.


The mission has been surveying the asteroid surface up close over the last year in order to select a suitable site to collect our sample. This is hard to do when the whole surface is covered in big rocks! Rocks are hazardous to the spacecraft, so we had to find a place relatively safe that had fine dust and gravel that our sampling instrument can pick up. Right now, we have four candidate sample sites (more images and info each site here and on twitter). The final selection will be made soon and the sample collected next summer, so I embroidered these birds to celebrate the hard work of the team and our progress towards this goal. It’s a very exciting mission to be a part of!


Some in-action shots:


Finally, we return once more to the naming theme of the asteroid, “mythological birds and bird-like creatures.” If you made it down to this point on the page then I’m sure you are simply *dying* to know what, exactly, constitutes a “bird-like creature.” Well, my friends, we wondered the same thing. In fact, the term is so ambiguous that we actually conducted a scientific study and developed a model in order to quantify a creature’s birdularity. This has enabled us to easily assess how bird-like something is, and whether or not it is suitable for a name. You can find the full text of our humorous study below.

Quantitative assessment of creature birdularity with implications for planetary feature nomeclature

J. L. Molaro1, E. R. Jawin2, I. M. Reasor3, R. L. Ballouz4, and S. R. Schwartz4

1Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, AZ, USA (, 2Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC, USA, 3unaffiliated, 4Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA.


Birds and bird-like creatures have played an important role in human culture dating back to our early history. While many interpretations of the nature and overall birdness of such creatures are presented in myth and legend, recent events within the planetary science community have highlighted the need to better define for our modern day what exactly constitutes a “bird-like creature.” In this work, we present a methodology to quantify a creature’s total birdularity and demonstrate how it may be used to understand the mytho-avian population. We also present a more simplified method of assessing a creature’s bird-like qualities, through comparison to Molaro’s Birdness Scale. Our results suggest that any creature with a total birdularity of 0.5, or equivalent Molaro’s Birdness ranking of 6, may be appropriately considered a “bird-like creature.” We hope this work will pave the way for more clear communication within the scientific community, and for future work on the nature of birds and bird-like creatures.


Cockatrice copy