Brian May on The Zoe Ball Breakfast Show [+ Transcript]


Brian May was this morning, on BBC Radio 2, chatting by phone with the ever lovely “Queen friend”, Zoe Ball, on her Breakfast Show (approx 09.10am), about the samples just brought down to Planet Earth from the asteroid, Bennu, and his part in the project… …


ZOE BALL: Now I went to bed on Sunday night to the top story from Tina on the News At Ten, saying NASA had just collected their largest asteroid sample ever. And when we woke up the next morning, we heard that this was with thanks to Queen guitarist and friend of the show. Brian May.  We had to find out some more and he’s on the line now. Good morning, Brian. How are you?

BRIAN MAY: Hi, Zoe. I’m good thank you. I’m on my way to Queen rehearsals at the moment.

ZOE: How are rehearsals going?

BRIAN: Really well, in the circumstances, I think. Yeah, playing a little bit rusty. But it’s coming on. Lots of new ideas.

ZOE: Aw, very exciting news. So we get Queen, Queen update. And also tell us more. So they’ve collected their largest asteroid sample ever. Very excited to be following this story on the News. How are you involved? Brian? How did this come about?

BRIAN: Well, it happened because of stereoscopy, my passion with 3-D, And what happens with me and my collaborator. I have a lady in in Italy who collaborates with me called Claudia Manzoni, and together we basically plough through all the data that comes back from various space missions and find two pictures which make a stereo picture basically. So we make 3-D pictures out of what’s coming back from space. So we do this normally and there’s a lot of missions out there, unmanned of course – missions that that will visit various objects.

So OSIRIS REx is the mission we’re talking about here. And they were visiting Bennu, which is an asteroid about half a kilometre across and it’s the asteroid most liable to hit Earth in the future, interestingly enough. so they went there collected lots of amazing photographs, because they managed to orbit the spacecraft around it.

We started making stereoscopic pictures, and put them up – I put them on my Instagram – and I also sent some to Dan Taylor Ritter, who’s the boss, the PI of this mission, thinking, “Oh, he might be interested”. Well, he was more than interested. He was like, “I’ve never seen this before. I cannot believe you’re doing this.” And he said, we’re at the moment really in a difficult position, because we thought it was going to be easy to get a sample. We thought it was going to be like the Moon -we could drop this spacecraft down there … lands, takes a sample, takes off again, job done. So unfortunately, we discovered that this asteroid is actually not a solid body – it’s a rubble pile. So if we land on it, we’re very liable to either sink into it or fall over, in which case a billion dollars is wasted. So now you’ve sent us these stereo pictures, we’re getting a much better idea of where might be a suitable place to land. So he said, I’m gonna give you 20 positions and I would like stereo pictures of all of them so we can choose. 

Suddenly, from becoming I mean, it’s a joy. It is a labour of love for me and  but it takes a lot of time  0 takes me about 18 hours to do one of these stereos for various reasons. So me and Claudiarjust got down to it, and worked day and night to get these 20 stereo pictures together. And using those pictures, they were able to choose the site.

I mean, they have other ways as well. I’m not saying we’re the only information there but it was what they were able to do was they, I sent over some viewers, you know. We have our viewers, which you have – yeah yeah. And so he got his all his mission leaders together and they all looked at these pictures through the OWLS, and they got an instinctive idea of what was going to be a good landing site. Basically, you’re looking for a flat site, which looks like it won’t cave in and doesn’t have too many big boulders which might knock the spacecraft over. So it was very tense moment, but they chose it, they chose this site called Nightingale. And the ship went down there – they call it TAG, touch and go. They just touch the surface and there’s kind of Hoover operation to suck up the sample of the rubble, and they shoot off again. They actually nearly did fall into it. That is only because they had retro rockets, like the whole time that it didn’t actually go into the middle of the  steroid and get lost forever. So it’s very dodgy, very difficult operation, but they pulled it off like clockwork, it’s amazing. It’s really incredible.

ZOE: Incredible on every level, what people can achieve. It really is. Will you get to see the samples, Brian, at some point, will you?

BRIAN: Yes, I get to see bits of it probably. I would love to have been in Utah for the touchdown yesterday, but I couldn’t because we were rehearsing for Queen shows. … But yes, I’ll get to see … So it gets split up to various institutions around the world. So the Natural History Museum gets a big chunk of it, and they will be, I mean, they’re thrilled.  They have all sorts of analysis they can do. And the thing is, you can look at all this stuff and, really, there’s never been anything quite like this before. 

You know we get meteorites falling on Earth the whole time, you know, which is similar kinds of material, but mostly they burn up or they get contaminated. So, once you get the meteorite in your hand, it’s lost a lot of its magic – it’s lost a lot of the information. This stuff is in a box. It’s pristine, including lots of very friable material. It’s like a sort of, it’s like a sort of Honeycomb. Some of these things. It’s so delicate, they would never get through the Earth’s atmosphere. But they got through this time because they’re in a box.

ZOE: We’ve learned so much, Brian. Thank you so much. We knew immediately, we’re like “We need to call Brian. He’s going to tell us more about this.”

BRIAN: Call me any time, Zoe.

ZOE: So thank you so much. I love it. By the way, you have a book “Bennu 3-D Anatomy of an Asteroid”.

BRIAN: … Which we do, which has the 3-D – all the 3-D pictures feature in the book.

ZOE: … all about the mission as well. Brian, have great rehearsals today and [I’ll] sure to catch up with you soon hopefully.  Love to the boys as well. And thank you so much for sharing shining a light and shedding more light on it for us today,Brian.

BRIAN: I’ll keep you updated. If they find a life in these samples I’ll  rlet you know.

ZOE: Brian…

BRIAN: That would be something. Its possible.

ZOE: You just don’t know.Brian, have a fabulous day. Brian May, thank you so much, and love to Anita.