NASA seeks to recover Genesis capsule
Scientists cautiously optimistic solar wind material is intact
By Michael Coren
NASA footage showed the capsule tumble rapidly during its descent over the Western United States.
Days of spaceflight
Days of Solar Wind Collection
Sample material collected
approx. 0.4 milligrams
August 8, 2001 Halo Orbit Insertion
November 16, 2001Start of Sample Collection
December 3, 2001Complete Sample Collection
April 2, 2004Earth "Flyby" on way to L2
May 2, 2004 Capsule return to Earth
September 8, 2004 Crash-lands in desert
September 8, 2004
(CNN) -- Instead of the smooth midair retrieval NASA expected, the $264 million Genesis mission to study the solar wind ended in a crater in the Utah desert Wednesday.
NASA scientists watched the Genesis space capsule tumble out of the sky and plunge into the desert at 193 mph near the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
The impact smashed open the science capsule, exposing its precious scientific cargo to contamination.
But scientists were cautiously optimistic that the payload -- dozens of fragile tiles that had collected particles of the solar wind for about two years -- could still yield viable material.
"Certain elements of the design should help piece the science together," said Andrew Dantzler, NASA's solar system division director. "We don't know the condition of the collectors that hold the science. We'll be learning that in the hours, days, weeks to come."
The canister has been lifted out of its crater by helicopter and moved to a holding area next to a specially constructed clean room on the Army base, NASA reported.
"The foil wrapping will be removed from the canister and dirt will be brushed off before the canister is moved into the clean room for analysis of the contents," according to a NASA statement.
Teams from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and Lockheed Martin surveyed the site Wednesday to assess the damage.
Hazardous fumes from batteries and a live explosive charge to deploy the parachute meant the teams moved cautiously.
"Part of this risky business of ours is [that] we prepare for contingencies," Dantzler said. "This project does have such a process to recover the science and capsule to the extent that we can."
The capsule was half buried by the force of the impact. Those on the scene reported extensive damage to the craft.
Launched in 2001 from Cape Canaveral, the Genesis spacecraft traveled beyond the protective cloak of Earth's magnetosphere for two years before heading home.
Because of Earth's electromagnetic field, much of the sun's deadly radiation and material never reaches the planet's surface.
In April, the craft ejected a 500-pound return capsule for return to Earth. It had been approaching the planet at a leisurely 600 mph. By the time it reached Earth's atmosphere, the craft was racing toward the planet at more than 25,000 mph.
The capsule was supposed to be visible for many in the United States as it made a fiery ride across the skies of Oregon, northeastern Nevada, southwestern Idaho and western Utah.
By 11:55 am ET, it reached the roof of the atmosphere, about 410,000 feet, glowing like a streaking meteor.
It was supposed to deploy a series of parachutes to slow its descent. Two helicopters, flown by Hollywood stunt pilots, were primed to snag the capsule once it glided above the Utah target zone.
But something went wrong.
NASA officials at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said that the long-range cameras did not detect any of the parachutes.
"There was no drogue chute or parafoil," a JPL spokesman said.
In line with NASA protocol, a mishap investigation team will be formed within three days. That panel could take weeks or even months to ascertain why the parachutes failed to deploy. NASA scientists could give no indication of what might have malfunctioned.
"When we buttoned the thing up from [the Johnson Space Center] in 2001 and launched it, its fate was sealed," said Don Sweetnam, Genesis program manager. "There was nothing we could do to change things."
Sweetnam, who began working on the Genesis project at its inception in 1997, was visibly shaken by the crash.
"It's a difficult moment right now," he said. "I have run through it in my head every step of the way. And, boy, did it click off perfectly today. But there are a lot of serious steps in series there.
"We got a lot of them done, but we didn't get the last two or three of them done," he said.
NASA officials were optimistic about the mission in the days leading up to the return of the Genesis capsule.
"We are bringing a piece of the sun down to Earth," said Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "That's going to give us some fundamental understanding of our origins."
Scientists said the material, if recovered, would not only reveal the composition of the sun but also illuminate how our planet formed from clouds of stellar dust.
"Four and a half billion years ago, all of the matter of the solar system, including us, was part of a giant molecular cloud," said Don Burnett, principal investigator for the Genesis mission.
"Genesis is providing the chemical composition of that solar nebula. ...The material is still stored for us in the surface of the sun."
Genesis collected the particles on special tiles made from silicon, diamond, gold, sapphire and other materials.
The solar particles, embedded in the collector tiles, were ejected at about 280 miles per second (450 km/s) from the sun's scorching corona, or outer atmosphere.
Genesis was designed to fill in an astronomical blank spot about the sun's makeup.
"What we've been missing is a starting point," Burnett said. "These samples allow precise measurements of the abundance of elements and isotopes in the sun."
Our star accounts for 99 percent of the mass in the solar system. It is composed mostly of isotopes of hydrogen and helium, and includes 60 other elements such as neon, argon carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and iron.
In all, Genesis collected the equivalent of a few grains of the material. Before Wednesday's mishap, scientists said that would be enough to keep researchers busy for decades.
"In some cases, we will be studying these one atom at a time," said Burnett, who estimated there would be a "billion billion" atoms available for study.
"We'll have a reservoir of solar matter. We can meet the requirements for [studying] the solar composition through the 21st century."