Because of such worries, NASA engineers planned to stage an elaborate mid-air capture of the capsule using Hollywood helicopter stuntmen. The pilots began training for the mission in 1999.
"These guys fly in some of Hollywood's biggest movies," Don Sweetnam, Genesis project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said earlier this week. "But this time the Genesis capsule will be the star."
Earlier today two helicopters, equipped with 18-foot (5.6-meter) poles designed to hook the Earthbound Genesis capsule, took to the skies in anticipation of a successful mission. But despite years of training, the stunt couldn't be pulled off once the capsule's chute failed to deploy.
The Genesis mission has already cost taxpayers some 264 million U.S. dollars. The scientific value of its cargo is harder to calculate.
Capturing a Piece of the Sun
Genesis was launched on August 8, 2001. Since then the craft has traveled about 1.86 million miles (3 million kilometers) toward the sun and back on a mission to investigate the origins of the universe.
The spacecraft used specially designed, hexagonally shaped wafers made from silicon, gold, sapphire, diamonds, and other materials to capture particles of solar wind. (The term describes plasma, or charged atomic particles, that are continuously emitted by the star and travel through space.)
The total size of the solar material collected over some 850 days in space was expected to be only 10 to 20 microgramsthe equivalent of a few grains of salt.
"To me the excitement really begins when scientists from around the world get hold of those samples for their research," principal investigator Don Burnett of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, had said days before the capsule returned to Earth. "That will be something."
Birth of a Solar System
Genesis had to travel far beyond the reach of Earth's magnetic field in order to collect samples of solar wind.
The plasma samples could have revealed the composition of an ancient cloud that, according to theory, formed the solar system some five billion years ago.
Scientists would like to study the precise ratios of isotopes and elements found in solar wind material. Any new information could alter theories about the solar gas cloud that gave birth to our solar systemand the role it played in forming every planet, moon, asteroid, and other celestial body found there.
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