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The Genesis Mission

The Sun and the Solar System of planets, asteroids, comets, etc. are closely related, in that the latter formed about contemporaneously with the parent star, both from dust and gas that had previously formed from various cosmic processes including supernova explosions. One prime goal of solar astronomy has always been to learn the details of the processes involved. The various compositions of objects beyond the Sun will depend in large part on the Sun itself. Thus, determining the composition of the outer shells of the Sun can shed light on how the extrasolar bodies themselves formed. Sampling the actual Sun's surface is obviously impossible with current technology. Fortunately, evidence of that composition can be found in the compositional makeup of the solar wind, in particular the isotopic variations of such key elements as oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon. Thus, NASA designed a mission that would collect solar wind samples (as atomic particles) and then return these to Earth for analysis. Genesis is an appropriate name for such a mission as it connotes "origin" with respect to the entire Solar System. A good review, by JPL, of the major goals of this mission is found at this JPL science rationale web site. Launch by rocket took place on August 8, 2001. The spacecraft was then "parked" in far outer space at one of the Lagrangian points (L1) in the Earth-Sun gravitational system. Its panels were exposed as shown in the above diagram and allowed to face the solar wind on a fixed schedule.

The spacecraft as deployed at L1 is pictured in this artist's painting; below it is another rendition in which the major components are labeled:

Genesis in positiion between Earth and Sun; artist's conception

The major components of Genesis.

One of the two collector arrays is pictured below. Individual collector hexagons are composed of various substances, including Gold/Platinum, Silicon, Germanium and Aluminum metals; diamond, and sapphire. Each is selected because of its ability to capture and store certain components of the solar wind. The thickness of a hexagon wafer differs in the two collectors - one way to distinguish any collector that might break loose or into pieces.

One of the two collector arrays.

The two collector arrays face the solar wind. At the end of the mission the arrays are retracted so that the two nest together and are covered by the Science Canister Cover. The spacecraft is then further covered by the heat-resistant protective Sample Return Capsule Backshell. The spacecraft then is directed back to Earth, a journey of millions of kilometers. As it approaches Earth, the now sealed capsule separates from the solar panels and framework and is directed to enter Earth's environment at an angle that optimizes its chances of passing through the atmosphere intact and slowing down for the final phase of re-entry

The collector array are the first samples of materials from outer space to be returned to Earth since Apollo 17, some 32 years earlier. The final phase leading to retrieval involved a technique used many times for data-holding canisters from military satellites, namely catching the capsule while it is descending in the lower atmosphere using helicopters to snatch it up. The capsule is first slowed by atmospheric drag and as it moves into the troposphere, a drogue parachute is deployed to further decrease its descent speed, followed as it is slowed enough by a main parachute. Assuming the capsule is coming down on or near target, one of two chase helicopters (operated by Hollywood stunt pilots who are masters at this kind of aerial feat) uses a skyhook to snag the parachute and carry the capsule to a very slow, safe ground landing. The capsule is then supposed to be rapidly retrieved and carried into the nearby "clean room" for removal of the collector arrays that are then flown to Johnson Space Center's facility for storage and examination of extraterrestrial material under ultraclean conditions.

Photograph of a helicopter practicing retrieval of a dummy capsule and attached parachute.

That was the optimistic scenario around 11 AM MST in the Dugway Proving Grounds, a huge federal (Army-managed) complex some 60 km (40 miles) west of Salt Lake City, Utah. The writer watched this event live on a closed-circuit JPL network. The capsule was spotted and cheers went up in the control room. Then, the capsule started tumbling, as seen in this picture.

The Genesis capsule some 1.5 km (about a mile) above the Utah desert surface

Then, to the horror of onlookers, no parachute(s) appeared and the capsule plunged helpless at about 300 km/hr (195 mph) to a hard landing in the desert. The explosives slated to open the chute hatches had failed to detonate. The helicopters closed in and took photos like this of the impact point:

The Genesis capsule broken open on the Utah desert, producing a small crater and ejecta blanket.

Personnel from one of the helicopters, that set down, approached the still hot capsule and took pictures of it. As seen below, the capsule had, in effect, split open. Onsite inspection indicated contamination from desert materials had entered and deposited on the collector array assemblies. Pessimism was high in Mission Control and among scientists that the mission had become a total failure.

The damaged Genesis sample capsule.

The capsule was carefully picked up (it did not fall apart) and brought as is to the nearby clean room at Dugway. This photo shows it to be still largely intact:

The ring around the hexagon base within one of the collector arrays.

Following inspection, fragments of the collector hexagons were removed, as shown below.

Pieces of solar wind sample-collecting hexagons, recovered from the broken capsule.

Because of the differences in hexagon thickness the fragments can be matched with the proper array holder. There is some preliminary indications that some of the hexagons are still intact. The effect, if any, of the terrestrial contaminations is being assessed. As of this writing (September 11, 2004) there is guarded optimism that some, perhaps most, possibly all of the major measurements as originally intended can be run on individual hexagons. Thus, the mission now appears not to be a total loss, and may even end up largely successful. This page will be periodically updated with further information or you can check out JPL's Genesis site for the latest status.