NASA Mission Returns With a Piece of the Sun
In a dramatic ending that marks a beginning in scientific research,
NASA's Genesis spacecraft is set to swing by Earth and jettison a
sample return capsule filled with particles of the Sun that may
ultimately tell us more about the genesis of our solar system.
Image left: A helicopter practices for sample return, which happens Sept. 8.
+ Full image and caption Image credit: NASA/JPL.
"The Genesis mission -- to capture a piece of the Sun and return it
to Earth -- is truly in the NASA spirit: a bold, inspiring mission
that makes a fundamental contribution to scientific knowledge," said
Steven Brody, NASA's program executive for the Genesis mission, NASA
On September 8, 2004, the drama will unfold over the skies of
central Utah when the spacecraft's sample return capsule will be
snagged in midair by helicopter. The rendezvous will occur at the
Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range, southwest of Salt Lake
"What a prize Genesis will be," said Genesis Principal Investigator
Dr. Don Burnett of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena,
Calif. "Our spacecraft has logged almost 27 months far beyond the
moon's orbit, collecting atoms from the Sun. With it, we should be
able to say what the Sun is composed of, at a level of precision for
planetary science purposes that has never been seen before."
The prizes Burnett and company are waiting for are hexagonal wafers
of pure silicon, gold, sapphire, diamond and other materials that
have served as a celestial prison for their samples of solar wind
particles. These wafers have weathered 26-plus months in deep space
and are now safely stowed in the return capsule. If the capsule were
to descend all the way to the ground, some might fracture or break
away from their mountings; hence, the midair retrieval by
helicopter, with crew members including some who have performed
helicopter stunt work for Hollywood.
"These guys fly in some of Hollywood's biggest movies," said Don
Sweetnam, Genesis project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "But this time, the Genesis capsule
will be the star."
The Genesis capsule -- carrying the agency's first sample return
since the final Apollo lunar mission in 1972, and the first material
collected beyond the Moon -- will enter Earth's atmosphere at 9:55
am Mountain Time. Two minutes and seven seconds after atmospheric
entry, while still flying supersonically, the capsule will deploy a
drogue parachute at 33 kilometers (108,000 feet) altitude. Six
minutes after that, the main parachute, a parafoil, will deploy 6.1
kilometers (20,000 feet) up. Waiting below will be two helicopters
and their flight crews looking for their chance to grab a piece of
"Each helicopter will carry a crew of three," said Roy Haggard,
chief executive officer of Vertigo Inc. and director of flight
operations for the lead helicopter. "The lead helicopter will deploy
an eighteen-and-a-half foot long pole with what you could best
describe as an oversized, Space-Age fishing hook on its end. When we
make the approach we want the helicopter skids to be about eight
feet above the top of the parafoil. If for some reason the capture
is not successful, the second helicopter is 1,000 feet behind us and
setting up for its approach. We estimate we will have five
opportunities to achieve capture."
The helicopter that does achieve capture will carry the sample
canister to a clean room at the Michael Army Air Field at the U.S.
Army Dugway Proving Ground, where scientists await their cosmic
prize. The samples will then be moved to a special laboratory at
NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, where they will be preserved
and studied by scientists for many years to come.
"I understand much of the interest is in how we retrieve Genesis,"
added Burnett. "But to me the excitement really begins when
scientists from around the world get hold of those samples for their
research. That will be something."
JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages
the Genesis mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate,
Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, developed and
operates the spacecraft. Los Alamos National Laboratory and NASA's
Johnson Space Center contributed to Genesis payload development, and
the Johnson Space Center will curate the sample and support analysis
and sample allocation.
News and information are available at http://www.nasa.gov/genesis
. More detailed background on the mission is available at
DC Agle (818) 354-5011
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Donald Savage (202) 358-1727
NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.