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Scientists Try to Salvage Solar Particles from Wreckage of Space Probe - 2004-09-09

U.S. space agency scientists have began examining the contents of a canister retrieved from the wreck of the Genesis space capsule, which crashed this week in Utah, after its parachute failed to open. Scientists hope they can salvage some particles from space that could reveal information about the origins of the universe.

On Wednesday, mission controllers watched helplessly as the Genesis capsule tumbled through the air and crashed into the desert. A parachute was supposed to have slowed the descent of the 204 kilogram capsule, so it could be snagged by waiting helicopters and eased to the ground. Instead, the capsule smashed into the Earth at a speed of 310 kilometers per hour.

Among those who watching the Genesis disaster on a TV monitor was astronomer Sten Odenwald of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where he is education manager for the image satellite project.

"Well, my friends and I were sitting in the lunch room watching the NASA TV, and we were, we were shocked. First of all, it was difficult to really appreciate what was going on, because you don't always see a satellite re-entering the atmosphere, you know, under any kind of control. And it was dramatic to see this thing entering the atmosphere and tumbling. But then you realize there's no drogue chute, and shouldn't that thing be stabilized and not tumbling like that. And when the impact happened, it was just awful, especially to see the wreckage on the ground," he said.

In the coming months, NASA investigators will try to determine why the drogue, or stabilizing, parachute attached to the Genesis capsule, did not open.

The Genesis capsule was in the final stage of a mission that began three years ago, and was aimed at capturing tiny particles emitted from the sun, known as solar wind.

Mr. Odenwald said scientists had hoped they would be able to bring the particles safely back to earth, so they could study actual physical samples of our nearest star. "Well, as an astronomer, it would tell me a lot about the not only the composition of the sun today, but also about the composition of our solar system, when it started out four-and-a-half-billion years ago. Because it turns out that material at the surface of the sun has not been changed chemically since the sun was formed. It's too cold in the upper layers of the sun to involve nuclear reactions that could change the abundances of the elements. So, the elements that you get from the solar wind and their proportions should be exactly the same as the proportions of these elements in the infant solar system. So, basically, Genesis would have given us a baseline sample of what the composition of the infant solar system [was] before meteorites and asteroids and planets started mucking up the chemistry," he said.

NASA officials have taken the wreckage of the Genesis capsule to a clean room near the impact site at the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. There, they will look to see what they can salvage from the canister. Special disks inside the canister captured billions of solar particles.

Dr. Odenwald said scientists have a huge job ahead of them trying to determine whether any of the samples were contaminated in the impact. "You gotta think of this as a very clean surface that they put up there. And they captured maybe a billion, billion atoms of the solar wind. But if you have any contamination, that contamination is going to be millions of times higher than the number of solar atoms that are there. So, you would be totally swamped. For every solar atom, you would have a million earth atoms corrupting the sample. So, it's really a horrific problem even to identify the solar part of this equation," he said.

Had the space probe not crashed, experts estimated it would have taken about six months to analyze the sun particles, which are no bigger than a grain of salt. Now, officials say, it could take that long just to separate the particles from whatever minerals may have contaminated the solar dust when the space craft smashed into the earth.