Hollywood stunt pilots had rehearsed the routine for more than a month: Snare the small Genesis space capsule and its precious samples of solar material as the vessel parachuted to Earth. But the final scene didn’t follow the script.
Genesis was launched in August 2001 to capture and return samples of the sun’s wind of charged particles. However, as the capsule hurtled earthward on Sept. 8, both its parachutes failed to open. The craft smacked into the Utah desert at nearly 310 kilometers per hour, burrowing halfway into the ground.
The same day, specialists used a stretcher to transport the capsule’s cracked canister, containing delicate samples of solar wind particles, to a clean room at the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. There, scientists are removing the dirt and mud that lodged in the container and are trying to determine what data might be salvageable from the $264 million mission.
At press time, scientists were guardedly optimistic that contamination from the impact hadn’t ruined the samples of solar wind particles, collected on the shattered ultra-pure wafers of gold, sapphire, silicon, and diamond. If terrestrial material has only coated the wafers’ surfaces, solar-wind particles embedded within the wafer might still yield information about the composition of the sun. NASA plans to transfer cleaned-up samples to its Johnson Space Center in Houston.