Capsule buried in desert when parachute didn't open:

Genesis Was Bringing Home Real Stardust

Switches Wired Backward Caused Crash in Utah
Shards Are Being Restored in Houston Lab

NASA image of Genesis sample return capsule buried in the Utah desert
NASA image of the Genesis sample return capsule on September 8, 2004, buried halfway in the Utah desert where it crashed as it returned from a mission to the Sun.
That fireball streaking across the morning sky above the western United States on September 8, 2004, was NASA's Genesis spacecraft returning samples of the Sun to Earth.

When it appeared northwest of Bend, Oregon, the capsule looked like a white-hot dot of light, brighter than the planet Venus, gliding across the blue morning sky.

Inbound. Traveling 25,000 mph, the fireball streaked across eastern Oregon, southwestern Idaho, and northern Nevada, brightening as it descended into denser parts of Earth's atmosphere on its way to Utah.

The fireball was most luminous over Nevada. Sky watchers as far away as 100 miles from the reentry path could see the capsule glowing 10 to 100 times brighter than Venus. In fact, the light was as bright as a fat crescent Moon.

Genesis crossed the southwestern corner of Idaho and, moments later, northern Nevada not far from the tiny town of Elko.

No 'chute. A crisis arose at 1554 universal time (UTC) [ 8:54 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) or11:54 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) ], when the Genesis sample return capsule was to have been slowed to a near-halt by deployment of a drogue parachute.

Once the fireball around the spacecraft died down, a parafoil style of parachute was to have popped out so the capsule could glide gently to the US Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range, southwest of Salt Lake City. There, helicopters were poised to pluck the capsule from mid-air using a long hook. The helicopter pilots are Hollywood stunt pilots and former military aviators.

Unfortunately, as the fireball faded over Utah, it became obvious neither the capsule's drogue 'chute nor its parafoil had popped out as planned.

Genesis Timeline
2001 Aug 8Launch
2001 Oct 21Sampling started
2001 Nov 16Halo orbit Insertion
2004 Apr 2Sampling ended
2004 May 1Earth flyby on way to L2
2004 Sep 8Capsule crash lands in Utah
2004 Oct 7Remnants removed to Texas
Smack down. Instead, the capsule tumbled wildly as it fell to the desert floor where it buried itself in the ground.

It landed on target, but without open parachutes, it crashed at 193 mph.

Fortunately, the Genesis sample return capsule was designed to survive such a landing. Also, it came down in a remote area so nobody was injured and no structures were damaged.

Was the capsule's precious cargo lost in the crash landing? Genesis team scientists and engineers dug out the canister and carted it to a clean laboratory at the U.S. Army Proving Ground at Dugway, Utah, where they methodically trimmed away the canister's wall and extracted fragments of the sapphire wafer collector array.

Picking up the pieces. The capsule's collector segments still are useful to Genesis scientists, who plan to measure oxygen isotopes to see which of their several theories might be correct about the role of that chemical element in the formation of the Solar System.

The shards remaining from the sample return capsule were shipped from Utah to the Johnson Space Center in Houston where the solar particles eventually will be studied. They arrived October 7, 2004.

Some 3,000 bits and pieces of the wafers from five collector panels are stored in containers in a locked room waiting for researchers to figure out how to clean them of their contaminants. Each container holds up to 96 wafer pieces.

For example, the gold foil collector, containing almost a million billion atoms of solar wind, was found to be undamaged. The polished aluminum collector is misshapen, but intact and will yield secrets about the Sun.

Originally, the five disks collecting the solar wind were composed of 350 wafers, which captured atoms so scientists on Earth could measure the isotopic ratios of oxygen and nitrogen. Many wafers shattered when the capsule hit Earth. The salvaged wafers are composed of silicone, gold on sapphire, and germanium.

After a decision is made about how to clean away mud, salts and splintered capsule parts, and reassemble them, the wafers will be moved to clean labs for study of their samples of atoms and ions from the solar wind. Most will be studied by researchers in labs away from Houston.

What went wrong? a NASA Mishap Investigation Board looked into what prevented the first drogue parachute and the larger parafoil from opening. They wanted to know why the 450-lb. capsule crashed into the high desert at 193 mph.

After studying the problem for a month, the board announced the capsule had crashed because four tiny gravity switches that were supposed to release the parachutes were installed backward.

The board said engineers assembling the Genesis probe four years earlier had followed incorrect drawings prepared by Lockheed Martin Corp. That was the same company that five years earlier was said to have incorrectly programmed the Mars Climate Orbiter in English units of measurements rather than metric units. That information had come to light after the Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation Board had studied the mystery of the vanished Mars probe.

How should it have worked? The switches are tiny cylinders only about three-quarters of an inch long and a quarter of an inch in diameter. The capsule had two pairs of the switchs. The plan had been, if one pair malfunctioned, the other would take over.

With the capsule decelerating as it passed downward through Earth's atmosphere, a plunger inside a switch was supposed to be compressed by rising G-forces. That was to have closed the circuit. Then, after the capsule had descended far enough and slowed, the pressure would relax, breaking the circuit and deploying the drogue parachute.

However, the original drawings were backward so the switches were installed backward. Neither set could do its job so the 'chutes never opened.

Genesis, the Search for Origins

Genesis was NASA's first sample return mission sent to space since Apollo in 1969-1972. It was the first ever sample return from beyond the Moon.

Genesis was launched August 8, 2001, to capture samples from the storehouse of 99 percent of all the material in our Solar System – the Sun.

After seining for stardust since 2001, the Genesis spacecraft completed the final lap of its journey by returning home. It's arrived in Utah on schedule September 8, 2004.

Gold, sapphires, diamonds. Genesis collected particles of the solar wind on ultra-pure wafers of gold, sapphire, silicon and diamond.

Back on Earth, the samples were to be analyzed for information on the composition of the Sun. Scientists hoped they would shed light on the origins of our Solar System.

NASA artist concept of Genesis in deep space collecting solar particles
The Genesis spacecraft is open in deep space ready to collect and store samples of solar wind particles in this NASA artist's view.
Capturing stardust? Our Sun is one star among hundreds of billions in our Milky Way galaxy. The amount of stardust from the Sun collected in deep space by the Genesis spacecraft and returned to Earth was about 1020 ions or 0.5 milligrams.

Gathering knowledge. The science objectives of the Genesis project were: Scientists wanted to know: Solar wind. The samples are bits of the Sun, which Genesis spent 27 months collecting from the solar wind.

The solar wind is a gossamer stream of gas and plasma – energetic charged particles, mostly protons and electrons – flowing away from the corona of the Sun at 200-300 miles per second. It is so tenuous there are only about five fast moving particles per cubic centimeter.

Scientists believe the solar wind is almost identical in composition to the primeval solar nebula, the cloud from which the Sun and planets condensed 4.5 billion years ago. They say that examining pristine bits of the solar wind amount is examining the stuff of our origins – thus the name Genesis.

Earth flyby. Genesis flew past Earth on May 2, 2004, in a loop that put it on track for home – and the planned mid-air recovery that did not occur over the state of Utah in September 2004.

The Earth flyby occurred at about 10 a.m. Universal time (UTC) on May 1 at an altitude of 239,850 miles above our planet's surface. That is just beyond the Moon's orbit.  [UTC »»]

At that time, the spacecraft was traveling at a speed relative to Earth of 2,800 miles per hour.

The Genesis Landing Site
On September 8, 2004, Genesis dropped its precious cargo of particles in a sample return capsule in an attempt to parachute to a soft landing on the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range. Unfortunately, the parachute system failed and the capsule crashed on the desert floor.

UTTR has 2,624 square miles of airspace over the Great Salt Lake Desert in northwestern Utah and eastern Nevada. The desert has undulating sand dunes, mountains rising abruptly from the desert floor, and rolling hills building up to mountain ranges.

The range is 70 miles west of Salt Lake City. A small town nearby is Callao, Utah, west of Fish Springs and north of Trout Creek, on the old Overland and Pony Express route south of a gold mining area. In 1860, the Pony Express established a station there when gold was discovered in Gold Hill. Today, there are 27 residents and Callao is the last town in Utah to use a one-room schoolhouse.
Capsule capture had been planned. To preserve the delicate particles of the Sun, specially trained helicopter pilots were set to use custom-designed hooks to snag the return capsule in mid-air over the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range on September 8, 2004. The flight crews for the two helicopters were comprised of former military aviators and Hollywood stunt pilots.

Two dozen astronomers, astrobiologists and other scientists were inside an Air Force NKC-135 aircraft equipped with a battery of telescopes and spectrometers pointing out of 20 upward-looking windows.

"Genesis has been way out there collecting samples from space for a long time," said project manager Don Sweetnam of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

"We brushed past Earth just beyond the Moon's orbit. On September 6, we will again approach Earth at lunar distance, but this time we are going to come on in carrying NASA's first samples from space since Apollo 17 carried the last moon rocks back in December of 1972," Sweetnam said.

Despite preparations by the helicopter flight crews, navigators and mission engineers, the sample return capsule did not make a soft landing. Genesis dropped its capsule but the parachutes didn't open.

Now, a NASA review board will try to find out why the parachutes didn't open.

Discovery Missions

Genesis was one of NASA's Discovery projects, which were characterized by their low cost, short development time, and narrow science objectives.

Genesis was conceived in the early 1980s and finally selected in 1997 from among 35 other Discovery mission proposals that year.

NASA artist conception of the Stardust sample return capsule landing in Utah
A NASA artist imagines the Stardust sample return capsule landing in Utah in January 2006. Of course, the space agency hopes a helicopter will snag the package in midair before it parachutes all the way down to the surface.
Stardust, too. Genesis was the fifth of NASA's Discovery missions. The others were Mars Pathfinder, Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR), Lunar Prospector and Stardust.

Pathfinder, NEAR and Prospector previously had completed their missions while the spacecraft named Stardust is on the way home from Comet Wild 2 with a sample of about 1,000 dust specks from the comet.

On January 15, 2006, Stardust will drop its precious cargo of particles in a sample return capsule by parachute to a soft landing on the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range. That's the same place where Genesis dropped its capsule.  [STARDUST »»]

Will the Stardust parachutes open? In the wake of the Genesis crash, NASA took another look at the Stardust drawings. That probe will bring comet particles back to Earth in 2006 and its parachute re-entry system uses the same switches as Genesis. However, the Stardust switches seemed to be wired correctly.

Project management. The Genesis project was managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Pasadena, California, for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Learn more about solar exploration:

Genesis site   [nasa jpl]
Genesis site   [nasa jpl]
Genesis science   [nasa jpl]
Genesis technology   [caltech]
Genesis multimedia   [nasa jpl]
Hypervelocity Reentries   [nasa ames]
  Solar System:

The Sun   [sto]
Stardust   [sto]   [nasa]

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