NASA Capsule With Solar Particles Crashes in Utah

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
September 8, 2004
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 Earth—with or without a parachute.

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 micrograms—the 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 system—and the role it played in forming every planet, moon, asteroid, and other celestial body found there.

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