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Science & Space

High hopes to salvage Genesis science

By Michael Coren

The Genesis Sample Return payload arrives at a hangar for examination.
• Gallery: Genesis recovery

Audio Slide Show: Capsule crashes in desert
• Miles O'Brien: Mission blog
• Gallery: Crash landing
• NASA: Genesis missionexternal link
Genesis facts

Days of spaceflight

  • 1,125
    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

    (CNN) -- Wreckage from the Genesis space capsule yielded good news on Friday when NASA scientists announced the solar payload may still fulfill its scientific promise.

    "We should be able to meet many if not all the primary science goals," said physicist Roger C. Wiens of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

    The damaged spacecraft was lifted out of its crater by helicopter and moved to a sterile "clean room" on the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah following the crash. Inspectors with mirrors and flashlights were thrilled to find some of the hexagonal-wafers and gold foil intact. Although many of the tiles shattered -- some were reduced to dust -- scientists found enough shards that were large enough to study.

    Genesis had painstakingly deployed the collector tiles and foil over the last two years to capture atoms from the solar wind. An analysis of the solar wind is expected to provide clues about the composition of the sun and origins of our solar system.

    The biggest question for researchers was the degree of contamination.

    "There is serious soil contamination from the Dugway area," said Don Burnett, principal investigator for the $264 million Genesis mission. He said attempts to recover the samples would begin after the craft is fully opened and secured. Cleaning the wafers could affect solar samples because the particles -- atomic isotopes emitted by the sun -- are only shallowly embedded in the tiles.

    "This is an experiment we might lose," he said. "We have a lot of talented people and a lot of time and we'll see what we can pull out."

    NASA engineers were still looking into the cause of the crash.

    Recovery teams found that the explosive charges on Genesis did not fire indicating why the parachutes had not deployed. NASA said a command-and-control problem was to blame because none of the charges were tripped by electronic command.

    "The message did not arrive at the device meant to deploy the chute," said Gentry Lee, chief engineer of planetary systems at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Anything beyond that is speculation."

    An investigation board is expected to be appointed by Friday. Lee added that lessons learned from Genesis would be applied to other sample-return missions, including the Stardust mission to return in January 2006.

    "Genesis has been a true pathfinder," he said. "Sometimes it's from failure you've learn the most."

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