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Science & Space

Genesis capsule crashes in desert

By Michael Coren

NASA footage showed the capsule tumble rapidly during its descent over the Western U.S.
Audio Slide Show:  Solar probe returns

• Animation: Genesis retrieval
• Miles O'Brien: Genesis mission blog
• NASA: Genesis missionexternal link
NASA Press Conference: 2:30 p.m. EDT. Live broadcast on Genesis mission crash.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space Exploration
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Genesis facts

Days of spaceflight

  • 1125
    Days of Solar Wind Collection
  • 884
    Sample material collected
  • approx. 0.4 milligrams
  • Timeline

    August 8, 2001
    Halo Orbit Insertion
    November 16, 2001
    Start of Sample Collection
    December 3, 2001
    Complete Sample Collection
    April 2, 2004
    Earth "Flyby" on way to L2
    May 2, 2004
    Capsule Return to Earth
    September 8, 2004
    Crash-lands in desert
    September 8, 2004

    (CNN) -- The Genesis return capsule crashed in the desert on Wednesday after its parachutes failed to deploy. The craft missed a mid-air retrieval meant to save the spacecraft from hitting the Earth.

    "The capsule has suffered extensive damage. It has broken apart on the desert floor," said an official on NASA TV. "Hopefully, there will be enough evidence to see what went wrong. Whether there will be enough science left inside remains to be seen."

    Teams are attempting to recover the craft. NASA has warned them that a "live mortar" or explosive charge designed to deploy the chutes may still be armed.

    NASA officials at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California said that long-range cameras did not detect the parachutes that should have slowed the craft.

    "There was no drogue chute or parafoil," said a JPL spokesman. "Under those condition, the Genesis capsule hit the ground at about 100 mph."

    NASA officials located the spacecraft around noon on Wednesday after it dug into the desert soil. NASA footage shows the craft tumbling rapidly through the air before hitting the ground with enormous force.

    The return of the Genesis capsule was supposed to be visible for many in the U.S. as the capsule made a fiery ride across the skies of Oregon, northeastern Nevada, southwestern Idaho and western Utah.

    By 11:55 am EDT, it reached the roof of the atmosphere, about 410,000 feet, glowing like a streaking meteor. Somewhere during that descent, something went wrong.

    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, the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "That's going to give us some fundamental understanding of our origins."

    Scientists say the data will not only reveal the composition of the sun, but illuminate how our planet could have 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."

    Two helicopters were poised above a Utah Air Force base to snag the Genesis spacecraft's return capsule. The sturdy container contained atomic isotopes collected as particles streaming off the sun, known as the solar wind.

    The unorthodox midair retrieval would have snagged the first extraterrestrial samples since the Apollo missions in the 1970s.

    Genesis collected the particles over the last two years 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," says Burnett. "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 including neon, argon carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and iron.

    In all, Genesis has collected the equivalent of a few grains of the material. Scientists say that is enough to keep researchers busy for decades.

    "In some cases, we will be studying these one atom at a time," said Burnett who estimates there will be a "billion billion" atoms available for study.

    "We'll have a reservoir of solar matter," he said. "We can meet the requirements for (studying ) the solar composition through the 21st century."

    Genesis mission

    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 has 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. It was supposed to use a series of parachutes to slow its descent.

    On Wednesday, it entered the atmosphere around 11:55 am ET above Oregon and later plunged into Utah desert. Both the drouge and main parachute, a wing-like parafoil, did not deploy.

    This daring retrieval method would have protected the samples and sensitive instruments during reentry. The possibility of a serious crash was not discussed at press briefings.The chance for success were good according to NASA's retrieval partner in the mission, the aerospace firm Vertigo.

    "If they can find it, the success rate is very high," said Vertigo official Roy Haggard.

    A modified helicopter -- with a winch, hydraulic capture pole and hundreds of feet of line -- would have followed the capsule by radar until it snagged the parafoil. Because the Genesis capsule repressurized in the upper atmosphere, scientists wanted to minimize the sample's exposure to air and possible contamination.

    Scientists hoped that once the samples had been secured at a NASA facility, scientists could breathe easy. That won't happen now.

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