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Science & Space

Scientists sift wreckage of Genesis

By Michael Coren
CNN

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The Genesis Sample Return payload arrives at a hangar for examination.
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Audio Slide Show: Capsule crashes in desert

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• Gallery: Crash landing
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National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
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Genesis facts

Days of spaceflight

  • 1,125
    Days of Solar Wind Collection
  • 884
    Sample material collected
  • approx. 0.4 milligrams
  • Timeline

    Launch
    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) -- Scientists are sweeping, vacuuming and picking at the mangled wreckage recovered from the Genesis spacecraft that crashed into the Utah desert on Wednesday.

    David Lindstrom, Genesis program scientist, said NASA was "optimistic" about retrieving scientific data from the mission.

    "We think we can remove most of the impurities from the surface and science will be possible," he said. "The solar wind particles are implanted within the collectors so the absolute surface is not all that critical. We are hopeful of getting science out of this."

    Instead of the smooth midair retrieval NASA had expected, scientists watched the $264 million 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 capsule exposing its precious scientific cargo to contamination.

    The damaged craft was 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.

    Although the panels have been exposed to air and mud, scientists believe they can salvage embedded atoms from the tiles.

    "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."

    Shards of the delicate ultra-pure tiles were being picked up with tweezers at the crash site on Thursday. Scientists believe that some of the hexagonal-collectors survived the impact. A six-inch gap in the sample container allowed investigators to peer inside the capsule. Only a few square millimeters of the tiles are needed for scientific analysis.

    There was still no word on what might have caused the crash.

    A mishap investigation team will be formed within two days. That panel could take weeks or even months to ascertain why the parachutes failed to deploy.

    NASA scientists gave no indication of what might have malfunctioned.

    "All we know is that the drogue parachute did not open and we have no idea why," said Lindstrom.

    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 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.

    Don Sweetnam, Genesis program manager, 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.

    High hopes

    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."

    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.

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


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