For the hundreds of people who helped design and build Genesis, September 8, 2004, was a bad day. After a nearly flawless two-year mission of collecting solar-wind particles, the Genesis team watched helplessly as its prized spacecraft plowed into the Utah soil at around 305 kilometers per hour (190 mph). The scientists and engineers would later learn that Genesis's parachute failed to deploy because small sensors designed to detect atmospheric entry were installed incorrectly.
Instead of bringing the particles home delicately, the craft cracked in half upon impact. The science canister containing the precious cargo was exposed to the air, the collector panels were shattered into more than 10,000 pieces, and parts of the spacecraft were pulverized into powder. Any surviving shards were contaminated by dust, dirt, debris, and moisture.
Despite this adversity, the Genesis team announced yesterday at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas, that it can still fulfill most or perhaps all of the mission's prime objectives.
After the crash, the Genesis team took immediate action to salvage whatever samples it could. "The best place to have a failure is on Earth," says Genesis principal investigator Donald Burnett (Caltech). "You can pick up the pieces. You can use every bit of modern technology to solve your problem." Following Burnett's lead, team members spent the past six months gathering, cataloging, and cleaning the fragments. So far they've logged 9,338 pieces.
Most important, Genesis successfully collected three varieties of solar-wind particles: slow-moving particles, fast-moving particles, and coronal-mass-ejection particles. The spacecraft had 5 different panels containing 15 different types of collector materials with 301 individual collector chips in total.
Since Genesis gathered the various types of solar-wind particles on specific plates, the Herculean task at hand is to determine what shards came from which plates. Currently the team is using microscopy to help identify the origin of some fragments. But it's slow going says team member Karen McNamara (NASA/Johnson Space Center).
Things aren't completely bleak. Of the 271 whole and 30 half hexagons, there are some 199 fragments still attached to the plates. And a scant few of the hexagons actually survived the crash landing. But there is still the major issue of contamination. Much progress has already been made toward cleaning the pieces. Using the most damaged bits as guinea pigs, the scientists have tried a variety of methods to remove dust from the shards without damaging the solar-wind particles trapped inside. Techniques like ultrasonic shaking, chemical rinsing, and laser ablation are some of the more promising solutions thus far.
Although the team has no official science results yet, Burnett expresses confidence in long-term success. "We're not giving up on anything," he says. "It's going to be harder and take a little longer than what we predicted. Just have a little patience with us while we clean things up."