Here comes the sun

September 09, 2004

TWO MILLION MILES. $264 million. 850 days. 25,000 miles an hour. Then wham!

The Genesis space capsule slammed into the Utah desert yesterday after hurtling through the air like a wayward hubcap following an encounter with a particularly nasty pothole. How much of its precious cargo is salvageable remains to be seen, but this much is clear: Sometimes, when something sounds to the nonscientific mind simply impossible, it is.

That's not to say that the recovery effort was doomed from the start; in fact, it had a pretty remarkable record. Here's how it was supposed to work: The 450-pound capsule was expected to enter the Earth's atmosphere yesterday traveling at about 25,000 miles an hour. It was to be slowed by a parachute a little over 20 miles out, and slowed even more by a main parafoil-type chute about 4 miles out. Then - and here's the good part - a helicopter stunt pilot on loan from Hollywood was to grab the chute with a giant hook and bring it in for a soft landing. There was a second copter just in case the first one missed. The pilots had been practicing on and off for five years and apparently had never missed. So what could go wrong?

That's the $264 million question now, as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration dusts off its image and picks through the pieces of the cracked casing to find out what's left of this ambitious and important mission.

The craft was sent into deep space in 2001, to a place almost a million miles away where the Earth's gravitational forces and the sun's gravitational forces cancel each other out. There, its hexagon plates collected solar wind samples - bits of electronically charged atoms that could help scientists learn about the makeup of the sun and the development of the solar system more than 4 billion years ago.

This is priceless cargo, embodying tiny, invaluable clues to how the planets were formed - to how dust and gas came to be, well, ultimately, us. Surely it is not hard to empathize with the scientists who spent years working on the Genesis project - and to hope along with them that despite the hard landing, they will be able to read what is, quite literally, written on the wind.

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