Connecting OSIRIS-REx's global team for innovative research while maintaining data sovereignty

"Because it’s so difficult to communicate from the clean room and get information out, we are using Mattermost as our exclusive means of communication."
Carina Bennett Project manager and software manager for OSIRIS-REx


  • Chose Mattermost as the secure collaboration solution for the OSIRIS-REx mission
  • Maintained data sovereignty to protect highly sensitive mission data
  • Fostered team connection through open conversations and brainstorms

OSIRIS-REx is NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission that aims to help humanity learn more about the genesis of our existence. Specifically, the mission seeks to determine whether asteroids that collided with Earth billions of years ago were responsible for bringing water and other key ingredients for life to our planet.

The mission involved building a spacecraft, flying it to an asteroid called Bennu, identifying a spot to extract a sample from it, and returning to Earth. The spacecraft launched in 2016, the sample was collected in 2020, and a small capsule containing part of the asteroid returned to Earth on September 24, 2023. Today, the spacecraft remains in space, continuing on to visit another asteroid named Apophis by the end of the decade.

The OSIRIS-REx team of roughly 500 professionals is largely based in Tucson, Arizona at the University of Arizona, with colleagues distributed across the world.

Watch the full OSIRIS-REx Webinar

Collaborating globally to deepen our understanding of the universe 

Moving a sophisticated project like OSIRIS-REx forward requires close coordination between multiple stakeholders. At the beginning of the mission, the OSIRIS-REx team began setting up infrastructure that would guide their efforts and help them accomplish their objectives.

“Our development team wanted to have a tool to communicate between themselves that wasn’t email,” says Tony Ferro, a system administrator at the University of Arizona who’s tasked with managing IT for OSIRIS-REx. “Email can be a bit random when it comes to how many email chains there are and how long they get, so they were looking at other options.”

As part of a NASA mission, security is top of mind for the OSIRIS-REx team.

“We do have information that is both export-controlled as well as proprietary,” Ferro continues. “The regulations being what they are, we needed to be able to control who has access to our discussions. “

Maintaining control of mission-critical data & automating processes with Mattermost

To protect sensitive data and best support researchers, Ferro and his team began looking for a collaboration solution that they could host locally on their own servers.

“We had a lot of concerns about version control,” Ferro says. “We wanted to make sure we could test everything before we upgraded to a new version.” 

After surveying the market and exploring their options — including Slack, which the team wasn’t comfortable with due to it being a SaaS solution they had no control over — the OSIRIS-REx team ultimately decided that Mattermost was the ideal solution for their collaboration needs.

“We looked at a couple of products and Mattermost won,” Ferro explains, adding that — even as a well-funded NASA project — the team is always concerned with the bottom line, and Mattermost fit the budget pretty well. “Initially, some of us older folks had trouble getting into the Mattermost scheme of things, but many of us have gotten on the bandwagon now, and as the mission has progressed, more and more people started using it.” 

After deploying Mattermost in 2015, one of the first things the developer team did was leverage APIs to automate recurring processes. For example, when the spacecraft would send a packet of scientific data down to Earth, the team would automatically receive a notification.

“We would get data streams from the spacecraft with images,” Ferro says. “We had processes that took the data stream and broke it apart into images, spectra, telemetry, and so forth. Then the images and spectra were processed, flat-fielded, and calibrated, and the team would use Mattermost to notify each other about what the status was.”

From there, Mattermost adoption grew organically. 

Accelerating groundbreaking research with a secure collaboration solution

If you think that sending a spacecraft to outer space to collect a sample from an asteroid is a difficult task, you’d be correct.

“We expected a big boulder, with dirt on it, and sort of a beach-like appearance on the surface,” Ferro says. “As we got close enough to Bennu, it became very clear that it wasn’t smooth; it was full of rocks.”

All of a sudden, instead of wondering where they should land, it became of matter of where they could land and “take a sample that won’t destroy the spacecraft by hitting rocks.”

“The spacecraft is designed with a long stick on the end of it and what looks like an old-fashioned car air filter at the end of it,” Ferro explains. “The way it works is we would hit the surface and shoot nitrogen down around the air filter, which would throw up bits of the asteroid into the filter, which would basically catch it.”

Overcoming this challenge required tight-knit coordination and moving with speed.

“The main mission went from what place is the most scientifically interesting to what place can we safely collect a sample,” Ferro continues. “In this massive rock field, we needed to find an area that was smooth enough that a) the spacecraft could actually get close enough to the surface without hitting a rock and b) the sample head could accurately hit the surface to collect rocks.”

The engineering work required to solve this problem was “absolutely phenomenal,” Ferro says. 

“When we finally reached out and touched the sample, we found the rocks are not hard, big rocks — they’re fluffy rocks,” he continues. “We sort of went through the surface, the rubble on top of the asteroid, and got more sample than we were expecting. We got more than we had needed for mission success — probably twice as much.”  

Collecting the sample was one thing. Getting it back to Earth was quite another.

“There were only specific times we had to return back to Earth, so we had to be in a specific part of the orbit to make sure we had enough fuel to make it back to Earth,” Ferro says. “It was very challenging to make sure everybody was communicating, and nobody found any problems with the return path. There were a lot of challenges that were met by the engineering team during this period, and Mattermost was one of the tools they used for that.” 

The samples, of course, found their way back to Earth. Fast-forward to today and the OSIRIS-REx mission is in the process of analyzing those samples — a two-year project bound by funding and availability. According to Ferro, the team is relying heavily on Mattermost to support this work since it enables them to accelerate their work and share information with relevant stakeholders with ease.

“We have subgroups that are looking at different parts of the sample using different instruments — trying to answer fundamental questions about the sample and the asteroid,” he says. “Mattermost has worked very well for us in this regard; it’s been very nice that we can control everything. We’ve been very happy with it. We have somewhere between 300 and 400 users today, and Mattermost has been a very, very useful product for us.” 

Over the years, Mattermost has personally saved Ferro a ton of time.

“I’m located in one building, and Carina [project manager and software manager], and a lot of the developers are in another building,” he says. “It saves me time having to drive back and forth to various buildings to communicate. That’s something I appreciate.” 

As an open source solution, Mattermost also “plays well with all the other applications,” Ferro says; they’ve connected it with Jira, Git, and their LDAP instance.

Keeping a globally distributed team connected in real-time

Over the life of the mission, the OSIRIS-REx team has been collaborating with many different groups, including folks at the Canadian Space Agency, the Japanese Space Agency, the Natural History Museum in London, and the Vatican Observatory.

“We have a very widespread team, and our team has changed a lot over the many years of the mission — we had a team that was writing the proposal, a team that was building the spacecraft, a team that was navigating the spacecraft and doing the science around the asteroid, and now we have a team that is doing sample analysis,” says Carina Bennett, project manager and software manager for OSIRIS-REx. “These are different labs all over the world; each of these teams has been quite dispersed. It’s really important for us to be able to communicate with all of these people who are in different time zones working on different things at different times.” 

By serving as a centralized repository for messaging and scientific data, Mattermost keeps all of these teams connected for both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration.

“It’s a lot easier to communicate with a group or a single person if it’s a quick question or if you need to develop an idea,” Bennett continues. “It’s a lot easier than email because our team is so widespread. It’s often not feasible to walk over to somebody’s office or even pop up a quick video chat because they might be in a different time zone and not available, but they might be able to do a quick back-and-forth on Mattermost.”

Mattermost also makes it easy for researchers with expertise in different concentrations to share information.

“If somebody has a question, they can just pop into the channel with the expertise and ask it,” Bennett says. “People are more than willing to help out and provide information and resources.”

Control of information with data sovereignty

By giving them the ability to self-host the solution on their own servers, Mattermost gives the OSIRIS-REx mission robust security controls along with data sovereignty

“One of the very nice things about Mattermost is that we could control our own server and we could also control the security on that server — you know, keep SSL certificates up to date and monitor all of that,” Ferro explains. “This is very important to us because we handle a lot of sensitive information, we need to be compliant, and we don’t want anybody to share our findings with the world before we do.” 

Ease of use and feature-rich nature

With easy-to-use, mobile, desktop, and web apps, Mattermost provides the flexibility researchers need to work productively in whatever manner they prefer, wherever they happen to be.

“One of the very nice things about Mattermost is that it has a great web interface,” Ferro says. “While we encourage researchers to use apps on their phones and computers, they can also just use a browser to access Mattermost.” 

Additionally, Mattermost gives the OSIRIS-REx mission a slew of features that support their research and keep globally distributed teams aligned.

“The channels are very nice and can be created very dynamically to include groups,” Ferro continues, adding that if the team hadn’t found Mattermost, they probably would have continued using email as a primary method of communication. “Mattermost also retains a nice history of our conversations so we can scroll back easily. Anybody who’s collaborated over email knows the dangers of trying to go back too far in an email thread looking for any particular bit of information.” 

The platform also makes it easy to share files across teams.

Rocky challenge, resilient response: Mattermost saves OSIRIS-REx with double samples!
Asteroid sample return
The asteroid sample returns to Earth.

“We’ve had some very nice images of the sample arm going into the asteroid and you see debris flying up and our first look at the actual sample when it returned to Earth — really exciting things — and everybody was looking for the very-high-resolution images so they could start figuring out what they wanted to do and which bits they wanted to look at more closely,” Ferro says. “Mattermost provided a great means of doing that.”

What’s more, while the team uses Zoom for video meetings, they’ve taken chat conversations during those calls over to Mattermost.

Creating a sanctuary for ideas: Fostering team connection and sparking innovation through open conversation & brainstorms 

The OSIRIS-REx team also uses Mattermost for water-cooler talk, Bennett explains.

“We had some automated programs that we developed that would take images from the spacecraft and automatically publish them or automatically turn them into GIFs pretty much instantaneously on Mattermost as soon as we got them,” Bennett says. “People really like to hop on to Mattermost either in our Town Hall channel or GIFs channel. Sometimes people make their own custom GIFs, add silly things like cartoons to them. It’s a really fun way to keep the team engaged — especially during times like COVID when we weren’t all together.”

The text-based nature of Mattermost also encourages more folks on the team to share their ideas openly.

“I find that it’s a little bit less intimidating for some of the students and the younger scientists,” Bennett continues. “We have a really strong commitment to the future scientists and bringing up the next generation. One thing I’ve noticed is that they’re more likely to pop into a Mattermost channel and ask a question or pose an idea than they might be talking in person or sending an email out. It’s a little more casual, and the scientists are very happy to jump in and say, ‘I know something about that’ or ‘I read a paper on that.’” 

Mattermost also deserves credit for helping come up with the names for some features on Bennu; the team had to follow a certain naming scheme relating to birds, mythology, and history, and they had a dedicated Mattermost channel to facilitate these discussions. 

“It was a really cool experience that a lot of us got to participate in,” she explains.

Revolutionizing IT support with collaborative problem-solving and streamlined knowledge-sharing

Now that the sample is back on Earth, Bennett’s team is creating a brand-new information system to house microscope data, and all researchers need to learn how to use it.

“We had a plan to create an IT support part of the website, and we quickly abandoned that because we realized that Mattermost already did that for us,” she says. “It was a huge time-saver for us with very clear ROI. People could hop on to Mattermost and into specific channels for specific types of questions, ask those questions, and it was easy for us to answer. We have a community helping each other. It’s been extremely helpful to be able to use Mattermost in the sample analysis phase of the mission.” 

Mattermost has made Ferro’s day-to-day easier, too. 

“If a user has an error message, they can cut and paste it into Mattermost, and we can see what the error is and actually read it and find solutions faster,” Ferro says. “If you’ve ever had to have a conversation where somebody was trying to read you an error message, you know that’s an interesting exercise.”

As an added bonus, frequently asked questions answered in Mattermost are then cut-and-pasted into an internal wiki, saving even more time.

Uniting the OSIRIS-REx mission: How Mattermost became a digital lifelife from launch to sample analysis

The way Bennett sees it, Mattermost became “an integral part of the team” during the mission — particularly once the spacecraft arrived at Bennu; folks would wake up and check Mattermost first thing in the morning.

“As new information was coming down from the spacecraft, people would talk about what they’re seeing, telling people to look at this image or that information, asking questions about what they’re seeing like, ‘Here’s a weird rock. Does anybody know what it might be made of?’” Bennett continues. “That was a really exciting time.” 

Now that the mission is in the sample analysis phase, the curation team is wearing bunny suits in a clean room where they’re containerizing, labeling, and classifying every piece of the sample.

Clean room

“They’re doing this through a glove box, so they can’t really communicate with us while they’re working on this. But at the same time, the entire science team is champing at the bit wanting to know what’s going on,” Bennett says. “Because it’s so difficult to communicate from the clean room and get information out, we are using Mattermost as our exclusive means of communication.”

Each day, one member of the team is in the observation room giving a play-by-play of what’s happening in the clean room.

“During these intense moments of curation activity, everybody on the science team is glued to Mattermost finding out what’s happening and when the sample is going to be released,” she explains.

Add it all up, and Mattermost has played a foundational role throughout the OSIRIS-REx mission. 

“I can’t imagine working on OSIRIS-REx without Mattermost,” Bennett says. “I think our teams would have become extremely isolated, and I think it would have been really difficult for some of our researchers who might be the only ones at their institution working on OSIRIS-REx. I think a lot of our major milestones would have been a lot less fun and exciting, and that it would have been really detrimental to our mission and our team morale if we didn’t have Mattermost.”