Following his 2019 book, The Atlas of Mars: Mapping its Geography and Geology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania geoscience professor Kenneth Coles has moved on to writing about something significantly smaller in size, but a project that could help scientists make big new discoveries about the origin of the Earth and the Solar System.

Ken Coles holding a copy of his book "Bennu 3-D: Anatomy of an Asteroid"Coles is part of the writing team of Bennu 3-D: Anatomy of an Asteroid, published jointly by the London Stereoscopic Company and the University of Arizona Press and launched in London in July 2023.

The book, designed to be accessible to the general public (like Coles’ Atlas of Mars), includes a number of three-dimensional stereoscopic photos of the asteroid and an OWL stereoscopic viewer.

These stereoscopic images were created by a different type of “rock star”—British musician and Queen’s lead guitarist Sir Brian Harold May, whom Coles met during the book launch after over a year of collaborating online.

May, his stereoscopic partner Claudia Manzoni, Carina Bennett, and C. W. V. Wolner join Coles as a partner author for the book, which tells the story of NASA’s seven-year OSIRIS-REx mission to collect samples of the Bennu asteroid and return them to Earth—which will happen on September 24.

On that date, OSIRIS-REx’s top capsule with the samples will parachute for landing in the Dugway Proving Ground military site in Utah. Samples from Bennu will be stored at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, but one-quarter of the mass of the samples will be given to the mission science team for study. The OSIRIS-REx will continue on to orbit the sun and head to Apophis, another asteroid.

The OSIRIS-REx (which stands for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer) was designed especially to gather samples from Bennu. Bennu is close to Earth (observable by telescope) every six years; it was discovered in 1999.

The book’s lead author and OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator is Dante Lauretta, a professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona. The principal investigator is the scientist who leads the entire mission and works with the project manager and the head engineer. In the book, Lauretta explains that samples from the Bennu meteorite are important to collect in space in order that the samples are not exposed to atmospheric conditions. (Bennu, which has a similar orbit to Earth, is not expected to hit the Earth’s surface.)

Out of the more than 500,000 asteroids in space, scientists selected Bennu for study because it was reachable, large enough to be sampled by a spacecraft, carbon-rich, and contains chemical compounds scientists believe to be critical to the story of Earth’s formation. Scientists believe that the rock debris on Bennu is a witness to the time when the Solar System and the Earth formed, Cole said.

In the book’s forward, Lauretta recognizes Coles for his contributions, including “his experience in cartography as well as a fresh eye to help us see Bennu from the point of view of a newcomer.”

“While the team will begin work immediately to analyze the samples, they will also store samples for the future, waiting for advances in technology for new analysis,” Coles said. This process parallels the curation of the Apollo lunar samples.

“Dante (Lauretta) was familiar with my Atlas of Mars,” Coles said. “I had a sabbatical coming up, and he invited me to work on the OSIRIS-REx mission. We were supposed to come together in Arizona, but the pandemic prevented that, so we ended up working in our basements,” he said.

“That's where I wrote a sample chapter, a book outline, and a book proposal. The rest of the team was busy at the time with the sampling event and mission operations at Bennu, so I got things started for them by writing to several publishers. While the book was rewritten extensively, we agreed on the basic outline and organization,” Coles said.

Coles has shared his work regionally with the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh; Coles is president of the group. He will share his experiences informally in the classroom this fall, including at a public planetarium presentation.

“Our preliminary analysis of Bennu shows it is not very solid, but it is dense—we’ve joked that it’s kind of a rubble pile held together by weak gravity—but it has the kind of origins that we’d expect from the beginning of the solar system,” Coles said. “It has some light rocks on it from other asteroids, so that suggests pieces have broken off and landed on Bennu or its parent body,” he said.

The mission itself has generated some very interesting discoveries, but Coles said that the second half of the story may be even more important.

“When the science team analyzes the samples, they’ll be looking to see how much water or organic molecules they contain—or maybe amino acids, which could be the building blocks of organic life,” he said. “So the rest of the story is yet to come.”

“The book is very visual—Brian and Claudia’s stereoscopic images are very beautiful and interesting—and it doesn’t read like something written by a bunch of nerdy scientists,” Coles said.

Coles’ The Atlas of Mars: Mapping its Geography and Geology was released in England in August 2019 and became available in America in October 2019. It is the result of eight years of painstaking work, updating NASA’s 1979 atlas of the planet. Designed for a broad audience, it reflects the most current information and knowledge about Mars, with a special focus on geology, including how the environment has changed over the history of Mars.

Published by Cambridge University Press, the atlas covers Mars in 30 charts, each with a topographic map: a daytime infrared map based on images from the THEMIS camera on the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, a geologic map of the corresponding area, and a section describing prominent features of interest. The atlas also includes information on Mars' global characteristics, regional geography and geology, a glossary of terms, and an index of Martian feature names and nomenclature. It also has a web page offering extra materials.

Coles came to IUP in 2004 after working as a high school science teacher. In addition to his course work, he directs the IUP Planetarium and offers community programming throughout the year at the planetarium. Planetary science has always been an interest; he grew up in Pasadena, California, during the Moon race.

Coles' father was a professor of engineering at Caltech, where he completed his bachelor's and master's degrees, and then did his doctoral work at Colombia University. His geology field project for his doctorate took place in Nevada.