- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2004

The Genesis spacecraft is returning home tomorrow after a whirlwind tour a million miles from Earth.

Launched in August 2001, Genesis was sent on a boomerang-shaped path a million miles away. The path was chosen to put Genesis outside the Earth’s immediate neighborhood in a gravitationally stable place where the spacecraft could be “parked” for a couple of years.

Genesis has five super-pure panels made of aluminum, gold, silicon, synthetic diamond and other materials.

The panels collected just 10 micrograms of particles from the solar wind — equivalent to about seven grains of salt. But the particles include every natural element except hydrogen and helium.

“What we’ve been missing is the starting point — the composition of the sun. This is what Genesis gives us,” said NASA scientist David Lindstrom.

Tomorrow, Genesis will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere over Salem, Ore., and travel across Idaho and into northern Utah in 96 seconds.

Civilian pilots Dan Rudert and Cliff Fleming will fly two helicopters and attempt to “catch” the spacecraft by its parachute before it hits the ground to avoid damaging the specimens.

Ground-based radars will instruct the helicopters where to fly. They are timed to arrive when the spacecraft is about 4,000 feet above the surface. Both pilots have practiced coming up behind the parachute, flying in formation with it, and then snagging the parachute lines with a hook.

Mr. Rudert said: “Out of a scale of 10, it’s kind of an eight or nine [in difficulty]. It’s a twofold process, to be aligned up directly where the hook can capture it and be at the right height above it. We’re so high up there’s no visual cues.”

Snatching a spacecraft descending under a parachute isn’t a new idea. During the Cold War, Air Force aircraft routinely captured capsules that had taken photographs over the Soviet Union, Vietnam, the Middle East and other crisis spots.

“A civilian helicopter pilot to work with NASA is pretty exciting, and it’s an honor,” Mr. Rudert said. “We’re going to be participating in aviation history. This will be the first midair retrieval that came in from outside the Earth’s orbit.”

If the pilots miss and the spacecraft hits the ground, it should survive, although there may be some damage to the samples. The goal is to get the spacecraft to a clean room quickly to hook it up to a bottle of super-pure nitrogen gas to avoid contaminating the precious cargo.

NASA scientist Don Burnett explained: “We are worried about us contaminating the samples — not the other way around.”

The sample canister will be shipped to the Johnson Space Center in Houston and examined in the facility that NASA used to study the rocks that the Apollo craft brought back from the moon.

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