Bennu in the sky, on the canvas and (soon) in Zoe Zeszut's hands

May 17, 2021

Zoe Zeszut painted mythological birds perched on the Bennu features that carry their names.

The near-Earth asteroid Bennu is nearly always on Zoe Zeszut's mind.

As a former operations engineer for NASA's University of Arizona-led OSIRIS-REx mission, she coded and verified commands to maneuver the spacecraft and capture images of the asteroid's surface.

In her new role in the Kuiper Materials Imaging and Characterization Facility, she will analyze the asteroid rocks and dust upon the sample's return.

Her work with space rocks also bleeds into her hobbies. As an artist, she interprets the data and mission symbolism in creative ways through her paintings.

During a typical planning cycle on the OSIRIS-REx mission, Zeszut and her teammates started by building plans weeks ahead of time. The plans were designed to capture images of the surface with good exposure and lighting with the least risk to the spacecraft. Next, the team turned the plans into coding language that the onboard systems could understand. Then, the commands went through layers of reviews by mission members before they were sent to Lockheed Martin, which built the spacecraft and provides flight operations. At Lockheed, the code was run through a spacecraft simulator and the results were reviewed by the University of Arizona team to ensure there were no conflicting or harmful commands. If everything ran smoothly, Lockheed sent the commands to the spacecraft. After the spacecraft completed an observation, Zeszut and the operations team monitored the operations to confirm that all acquired data was sent to Earth.

Zeszut, pronounced zes-zoot, joined OSIRIS-REx in March 2018, right before an operational readiness test in which the team ran through what would happen during actual mission operations. Since then, she's been there for arrivalorbital insertionmappingsite selection, the touch-and-go sample collection in October 2020 and the final flyby last month.

Her contract with the OSIRIS-REx mission expired in mid-April, around the same time the spacecraft was preparing to return home with its sample on board.

But before she joined the team that will analyze the samples in 2023, Zeszut made many Bennu-inspired paintings.

"The name Bennu comes from a heron in an Egyptian creation story, so it was determined that features – such as boulders and craters – on Bennu would be named after other legendary birds," Zeszut said. "Some of them are quite vicious, like a Mayan parrot that decapitates people, a winged pterodactyl-like creature that breaks boats apart and a witch owl that kidnaps children. But others seem much friendlier – like benevolent birds of creation or even the Dodo bird from 'Alice in Wonderland.'"

Zeszut has created about 20 Bennu paintings. Each one portrays a feature of the asteroid's surface with the associated mythical bird flying just above. She also has painted more realistic depictions of Bennu's surface.

For inspiration, she turns to artists such as William Hartmann, whose paintings are found hanging in the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and on the covers of some of Zeszut's textbooks.

Zeszut herself displayed some of her paintings to the annual "Art of Planetary Science" exhibit.

Zeszut loves nature, which is reflected by her choice of subjects. She often paints landscapes, animals, fossils, rocks and crystals.

"I like that my work and my hobbies are both creative in some way," she said. "You have to be innovative and insightful to do science. Like putting a puzzle together, you're trying to fit observation guidelines, science goals and spacecraft requirements together into one plan that runs successfully. I approach my art in a similar way. I like that I can bring work into hobbies and enjoy thinking about it even when I'm off the clock."

Zeszut found herself on the OSIRIS-REx team after graduating with a master's degree in planetary geology from Case Western Reserve University. There, she specifically studied asteroid and meteorite minerology and physical properties.

"During my graduate research, I kept coming across OSIRIS-REx stuff," she said. "I've always been interested in the mission, so when I finally finished my program and started searching for jobs, I found my position at OSIRIS-REx."

She started her undergraduate career in astrophysics at Ohio University, but quickly discovered it wasn't a perfect fit.

"I've always been interested in natural sciences, and I knew I wanted to have one of those majors. But shortly after starting in astrophysics, I switched because the program was mostly theoretical classes. I wanted my eye to the telescope, or at least something more hands on. Some friends in the geology department were taking classes like the geology of Mars and planetary geology, so I thought, 'Maybe that's the way to get into this.' I ended up switching to that major and got a bachelor's in geological sciences."

At the same time, she also completed a bachelor's degree in digital media and communications. She's always been drawn to graphics, art and video, she said.

Now, at the Kuiper Imaging Facility, her main duty will be managing and maintaining the labs that house the scanning electron microscope and the focused-ion-beam scanning electron microscope. Housed in the basement of the Kuiper Space Sciences Building, the faculty was founded in 2016 to support research on extraterrestrial materials.

"Going back to working with this kind of equipment is more like what I was doing in grad school, though some of the machines I used back then were decades older, so it's a bit like stepping into the 21st century as I'm learning about the equipment at Kuiper," she said.

She will also be part of the OSIRIS-REx sample analysis team when the sample return capsule is released from the spacecraft and lands in the Utah desert on Sept. 21, 2023. In the meantime, she and her new team will spend the next few years preparing for microscopic analysis.

Similar to her first days with the OSIRIS-REx mission, "we will be doing a sample analysis readiness test – a sort of practice run – in a few months. The Kuiper Imaging Facility will be at the center of the University's sample analysis work."

And just like before, it's likely her work will continue to find its way into her paintings.