The Genesis spacecraft has bicycle-tire-sized solar-wind collector arrays, made of pure materials such as diamond, gold, silicon and sapphire, designed to entrap solar wind particles.
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Pieces of the Sun
How was the solar system formed? How does life exist on Earth, but not on planets like Venus? These are some of the questions that scientists will try to answer with help from the Genesis mission, launched by NASA on August 8, 2001.
Image right: The Sun.
+ Full image . Image credit: SOHO (ESA & NASA).
The Sun contains over 99 percent of the matter that makes up our solar system. With that in mind, scientists believe that pieces of the solar wind resemble the dust, gas and ice from which the various bodies of our solar system evolved. To better understand the connection between the solar wind and the evolution of our solar system, NASA's Genesis mission set out to capture particles of the solar wind and bring them back for study on Earth.
What is Solar Wind?
While the Sun is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium, studies suggest that there are small amounts of over 60 other elements as well. The exact composition of the Sun is yet to be determined, as is an understanding of how that chemical makeup resulted in the diverse solar system we now know. The scientific theory behind the Genesis mission is that retrieving solar wind particles - pieces of the Sun's outer layer that are the mass of a few grains of sand - and analyzing those samples will give us greater insight into planetary formation and diversity.
Capturing the Solar Wind
Image left: This artist's concept shows the Genesis spacecraft in collection mode, opened up to collect and store samples of solar wind particles. + Full image and caption. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
To capture the solar wind, the Genesis team turned to such treasured materials as gold, sapphire, and even diamonds. These precious materials, along with silicon, make up the small tiles that are pieced together to form the Genesis spacecraft's collector arrays. In flight, an onboard computer decides which array would work best and deploys one of these bicycle wheel-shaped collector arrays to catch the particles when they collide with the tiles. Late in the mission, the collector arrays are all retracted and stored in the spacecraft's sample return capsule, which will protect them during their journey to Earth.
A Mid-Air Recovery
The sample return capsule will separate from the Genesis spacecraft and coast toward the Utah Testing and Training Range (UTTR). At about 1.5 miles above the ground, the sample return canister will release a parachute which will slow its descent. A helicopter with specially designed retrieval equipment will move in, capture the capsule in mid-air and transport it to Earth with the solar wind particles safely intact.
+ Solar wind and the planets
+ En Espanol: Solar wind and the planets
+ Mission overview