- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

NASA’s Genesis solar-wind-collecting spacecraft — traveling at 193 mph — smashed into the Utah desert yesterday after a parachute failed to deploy, leaving scientists worried about the condition of the space samples that it had gathered.

Long-range video cameras showed the spacecraft in an uncontrolled tumble toward the desert.

“Our hearts started racing a little faster, and before we knew it, it was on the ground,” said Genesis project manager Don Sweetnam. “It’s a difficult moment right now.”

The spacecraft lay half-buried in the ground after the crash.

The $264 million mission, part of NASA’s “faster, better, cheaper” approach to space projects, was launched in August 2001. It sat in a stable position 1 million miles above the Earth, where it collected atoms from the solar wind on 275 super-pure collecting plates, each about half the size of a compact disc.

The samples were expected to total 10 micrograms, the equivalent weight of four to seven grains of salt.

“The canister had been breached a couple of inches,” said Roy Haggard, chief of midair retrieval flight operations for the mission. “The capsule was not intended to land without parachutes and remain intact. It was quite surprising how little damage there was.”

Officials said a battery should have fired a mortar to deploy a drogue chute to slow Genesis and then a parafoil, or parachute, to reduce the descent to 9 mph. Genesis intentionally was aimed at a restricted zone controlled by the U.S. Army in Utah to avoid any danger to the public.

A helicopter was supposed to snag the spacecraft by the parachute — had it deployed — and lower it to the ground.

Scientists were eager to hook up the sealed inner canister to a bottle of super-pure compressed nitrogen gas quickly in order to prevent contamination.

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

Once explosives specialists determine that the mortar and five other pyrotechnic devices are not a danger and that the battery is not leaking, workers will use shovels to dig the spacecraft out of the ground. The capsule then will be placed into a cargo net and flown to the clean room at the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground.

“The science samples have been returned to Earth,” said Andrew Dantzler, director of NASA’s solar-system division. “But we don’t know the condition of the collectors, which hold the samples, yet. Once we get the capsule in to the clean room, we can examine the samples and determine what science can be done. There is a good possibility that some science can be done.”

One suspected cause for the failure is the battery. About a month and a half after the launch, engineers noticed the lithium-sulfur battery was running hotter than planned.

Other suspected causes include malfunctioning electronics.

The first time that particles from solar wind were captured was 35 years ago on the Apollo 11 mission. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin hung out a sheet of super-pure aluminum and let it capture bits of the sun while they performed other tasks on their moonwalk.

It is too early to tell whether the problems on Genesis might affect another spacecraft, Stardust, on a similar mission. Although Genesis was designed to collect the particles from the solar wind, Stardust is collecting particles from a comet. Stardust is scheduled to return to Earth in January 2006.

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