for National Geographic News
A capsule jettisoned earlier today by NASA's Genesis spacecraft experienced a parachute malfunction and crashed into the Utah desert. The malfunction nixed a planned mid-air helicopter capture by Hollywood stunt pilots that was years in the making.
The capsule's 1.86-million-mile (3-million-kilometer) journey ended with a long tumbling fall and a violent ground impact estimated at 100 miles an hour (160 kilometers an hour).
The capsule carried particles of solar wind, gathered by Genesis during 850 days of its space mission. Scientists had hoped the particles could shed light on the origins of our solar system.
"We can see that the capsule has suffered extensive damage, it's broken apart," Chris Jones, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's director of solar system exploration, said on NASA TV shortly after the crash. "Hopefully there will be enough evidence there to determine what went wrong. Whether or not we can recover any of the science remains to be seen."
The crash occurred near the U.S. Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range southwest of Salt Lake City. It was broadcast live on NASA TV and over the Internet.
Early phases of today's operation went according to plan. The sample-laden capsule was released from Genesis while the spacecraft hovered nearly 41,000 miles (66,000 kilometers) above Earth.
Around 10:00 a.m. mountain time, the container roared into Earth's atmosphere at approximately 24,706 miles an hour (11.04 kilometers a second). Aboard were the first samples of material gathered in space to return to Earth since the final Apollo moon mission in 1972.
"The capsule was delivered with pinpoint accuracy to the [atmospheric] entry point," Jones said. He noted that such accurate navigation surpassed even the mission team's "wildest dreams."
What later went wrong has yet to be determined. The mission is now in recovery mode and teams are assessing whether a live mortar round designed to deploy the drag parachute is still on the capsule, which lies embedded in the ground.
"They are going to have to be very careful with the capsule. It weighs roughly 500 pounds [200 kilograms], so it's not all that dainty," Jones said. "It's also broken into pieces, and we don't want it to sustain more damage. Clearly we are going to do all we can to recover science from the capsule. But it obviously wasn't designed to withstand this kind of impact."
Prior to today's crash, scientists expressed concern that Genesis's fragile collection devices were likely to shatter if they crash landed on Earthwith or without a parachute.
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