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Miles O'Brien: Little hope for broken capsule

Check this web log throughout the day as CNN Anchor and Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien follows the progress of the Genesis capsule.

CNN Anchor and Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien
Genesis facts

Days of spaceflight

  • 1125
    Days of Solar Wind Collection
  • 884
    Sample material collected
  • approx. 0.4 milligrams
  • Timeline

    August 8, 2001
    Halo Orbit Insertion
    November 16, 2001
    Start of Sample Collection
    December 3, 2001
    Complete Sample Collection
    April 2, 2004
    Earth "Flyby" on way to L2
    May 2, 2004
    Capsule Return to Earth September 8, 2004
    Crash-lands in desert
    September 8, 2004

    National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
    Space Exploration
    Science and Technology
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory

    Final thought

    Posted: 06:33 p.m. ET

    Neither parachute opened -- in fact, none of the pyrotechnic devices designed to launch the chutes ever fired. But beyond that, there are only questions, a hole in the desert and pits in the stomachs of some dedicated scientists. The search for the origins of the solar system may have to wait for answers to why a capsule containing pieces of the sun came crashing to Earth.

    Remembering Polar Lander

    Posted: 03:32 p.m. ET

    In December of 1999, the Mars Polar Lander crashed into the surface of the Red Planet. It was supposed to touch down with the help of parachutes and a rocket.

    The rocket was supposed to shut down when an accelerometer detected the jolt of landing. The problem was, the deployment of the landing gear (about 1,500 feet above the surface) created a jolt big enough to fool the lander into thinking it was on the ground. The engine quit and MPL made a crater.

    I mention this as a reminder of how little things can have huge consequences in the space business.

    Ultimately, it is a human endeavor, with all the intelligence, imagination - and failings - that are part of the human experience.

    Pyro problems

    Posted: 03:23 p.m. ET

    Confirmed: None of the pyrotechnics fired. Members of the team who have seen the wreckage up close can see the unfired charges. I suspect the capsule's timer will be the focus of some early questions/investigating.

    Genesis heartbreak

    Posted: 03:03 p.m. ET

    This is an heartbreaker. They were so close. Aviation/space is simply not forgiving of even the slightest errors.

    How it works (or shoulda)

    Posted: 02:58 p.m. ET

    Here is how the chute deployment SHOULD have gone down:

    As the capsule enters the earth's atmosphere, the forces on it steadily increase. About 45 seconds after first touching the atmosphere, the capsule should have sustained 3Gs - or three times the force of gravity.

    That was supposed to trigger a timer. All of the parachute releases were to be initiated by this timer.

    A mortar was set to fire 127 seconds after the time began ticking. It would have deployed a supersonic drogue parachute. Four minutes and fifteen seconds later, the timer would have commanded some pyrotechnic bolts to fire on the capsule - releasing the drogue chute.

    It was supposed to pull away the parafoil main chute - and it should have unfurled 6 seconds later.

    Tough to take

    Posted: 01:50 p.m. ET

    I spoke with Steve Squyres, principal scientist on the Mars Rover Missions, about the crash of Genesis. Squyres talked about the space science community being "small" -- everyone sharing in victory and feeling the pain of defeat. There is a lot of pain in the Salt Flats of Utah and the Pasadena foothills where the Jet Propulsion Lab sits today. But there are many other places where tears may be shed.

    Los Alamos National Lab helped on the design, and Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft. A lot of good people. A lot of tough questions and soul-searching lie ahead.

    Risky business

    Posted: 01:30 p.m. ET

    The space business attracts risk-takers ... no question about that. And I am not talking about the folks who fly on the shuttles. It is hard to imagine spending as long as 20 years thinking about, designing, proposing, seeking funding, launching, monitoring and waiting for the scientific payoff -- then having to watch it make a crater in the Utah desert. The scientists are philosophical -- they always have a few balls in the air at once -- as a hedge, if nothing else. But it is literally, and figuratively, crushing to see it -- even from afar.

    Live mortar?

    Posted: 12:22 p.m. ET

    At NASA, they love that "can-do" philosophy. But it's hard to see how they are going to recover any science out of the broken capsule. There appears to be a live mortar that would have fired the chute, and officials are thus being very careful before they approach the wreckage.


    Posted: 12:02 p.m. ET

    It hit without a chute opening!!! A total loss.

    Clear sailing

    Posted: 11:54 a.m. ET

    The pictures coming out of Utah are spectacular. Weather is clearly not an issue. Lead chopper at 6,200 feet -- 72 knots heading for the target site.

    Flight of three

    Posted: 11:47 a.m. ET

    The two A-Stars are followed by two other choppers. One is providing a live feed (another A-Star) and a military Blackhawk is in the flight.

    Dizzying heights

    Posted: 11:45 a.m. ET

    I flew for a few years with a Tampa TV station chopper pilot who was seriously afraid of heights! These guys going after the Genesis capsule will be flying at 9,000 feet above sea level - about 5,000 above the ground. That's pretty high for a chopper guy. Liftoff at 11:25 AM ET - 9:25 AM Mountain.

    Smooth riders

    Posted: 11:35 a.m. ET

    Choppers are spooled up. They are Eurocopter Astar 350-B2's. They are favored by Hollywood and TV News operations because of their stable smooth ride.

    No room for error

    Posted: 11:30 a.m. ET

    The last time NASA brought a spacecraft into our atmosphere from deep space (outside low Earth orbit where the shuttle flew) was 1972. Apollo 17 came home carrying the last men to walk on the moon -- Gene Cernan and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt. The speed then was the same - about 25,000 mph ... way faster than a speeding bullet. Navigation is crucial. If a craft entering the atmosphere at that speed enters too steep, it will burn to a crisp. If it hits at too shallow an angle, it will skip like a stone on a pond -- and then off into space. This really is a job for rocket scientists!

    Ready for takeoff

    Posted: 11:22 a.m. ET

    Choppers to take off in a few minutes. Pilots have done their pre-flights.

    The broad side of a barn

    Posted: 11:20 a.m. ET

    Genesis is headed for the largest contiguous block of restricted airspace in the United States: the Air Force Utah Test and Training Range. It is 2,624 square miles. Rhode Island is about 1,500 square miles. So for space navigators this might as well be the broad side of a barn. Hopefully, they didn't get confused and aim for Providence ...

    Look, up in the sky!

    Posted: 11:17 a.m. ET

    The Genesis capsule is on its way. In less than an hour it will reach the roof of the atmosphere (about 410,000 feet) and as it does it will start glowing like a streaking meteor. If you live in Oregon, northeastern Nevada, southwestern Idaho or western Utah, you should grab your video camera and head outside.

    Genesis will streak across the sky -- fast as a shooting star -- from the northwest to the southeast. How many times can you make an appointment to see a meteor?

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