Genesis' three-year mission ends with crash landing in Utah desert

Parachute fails to open

scientists hope to recover solar samples from craft

September 09, 2004|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

NASA scientists struggled into the evening to salvage precious solar samples from its mangled $260 million Genesis spacecraft, which slammed into the Utah desert yesterday at more than 190 mph when its parachute failed to open.

The spacecraft had spent three years trolling beyond the moon to collect solar particles that could answer questions about the solar system's origins and evolution. It was the first time NASA had attempted to return extraterrestrial material to Earth robotically.

The crash, broadcast live by NASA television cameras, carved a 15-inch-deep crater into the desert floor and split open the sealed interior of the capsule. But scientists grew hopeful when an initial investigation found that not all of the delicate solar samples had been broken in the fall.

"We have the capsule. It's on the ground. There is still hope for a science result from this mission," Donald Sweetnam, Genesis project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told reporters at a news conference.

Still, for NASA scientists and engineers who had spent years on the project, the failure was a devastating ending to what had been a nearly flawless mission. "It's a difficult moment right now," Sweetnam acknowledged.

The space agency said it would assemble a mishap investigation board within 72 hours to determine the cause of the chute failure. Although a definitive answer isn't likely for months, Robert Corwin, head of the Genesis recovery team, said engineers already have some clues.

After punching through Earth's atmosphere at nearly 25,000 mph, an explosive charge inside the spacecraft was supposed to eject a small drogue parachute to stabilize the capsule. Then, at 22,000 feet, three explosive bolts were programmed to fire and release the capsule's main chute.

Corwin said a quick visual inspection of the damaged capsule showed that none of the explosives had detonated. "The fault lies somewhere back up the system," he said.

Engineers have some possible suspects, including the gravity sensor that arms the parachute system and the battery that powers it. Since most of NASA's lost spacecraft come to grief on other worlds, officials said, Genesis investigators might have an easier time solving this mystery.

"Here we have the advantage of the corpus delicti," said NASA's Chris Jones.

Launched in August 2001, Genesis spent 850 days collecting electrically charged solar wind particles on a series of delicate hexagonal collectors made of silicon, sapphires, gold and diamonds.

Scientists hoped the particles Genesis retrieved - which together weighed less than a few grains of salt - would provide a snapshot of the solar system when it was a cloud of dust and gas millions of years ago.

To prevent the delicate samples from being damaged by the impact of a normal parachute landing on their return to Earth, NASA hired a team of Hollywood helicopter stunt pilots to snag the capsule in a meticulously scripted mid-air capture.

The helicopter team trained for six years to snatch the capsule's parachute with a hook as it floated down at 6 feet per second. Instead, the team was forced to look on as the tumbling spacecraft slammed into the desert floor.

"I was actually quite surprised how little damage there was, considering the velocity it touched," said Roy Haggard, who helped choreograph the mid-air snatch for NASA and was riding in the lead helicopter.

In the end, scientists said, they might be left with a giant jigsaw puzzle, forcing them to piece together shards of the hexagonal collectors from debris strewn around the capsule. Since each collector was a different thickness, NASA scientists said, reassembling the samples might not be as hard as it appears.

But breakage is only one of their worries. Earthly contamination can spoil the solar samples even if scientists are able to piece them back together. If Genesis had returned to Earth as planned, scientists would have taken great pains to protect the samples.

They planned to rush the capsule to a heavily filtered "clean room" at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground, where it would be flushed with nitrogen gas to purge earthly contaminants.

After that, they planned to truck the Genesis samples to a clean room at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Located one floor below the room where moon rocks retrieved by Apollo astronauts are kept, the new chamber was specially constructed for Genesis.

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