Monday, October 22, 2007

Nature: Crashed spacecraft yields data

By Nicola Jones

Researchers have been able to salvage usable material from the Genesis mission, whose aim was to collect samples from the solar wind and bring them safely back to Earth. The results, picked from millimetre-sized shards of the spacecraft's detectors, provide a snapshot of the early Solar System, and will feed into models that outline how our planet’s atmosphere evolved. “Great measurements can be made on small objects,” says Genesis scientist Roger Wiens of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The Genesis mission spent 27 months in space with its innards spread open to the Sun, gathering tiny samples from different types of solar wind. Its delicate and contamination-sensitive collectors were due to be returned to Earth using an unusual technique — Hollywood stunt pilots were enlisted to swoop by in a helicopter and catch the falling capsule. But the craft’s parachute did not open, and the careening craft ploughed a hole into the desert. Observers were initially devastated that the spacecraft had crashed, but researchers soon realized that data could be salvaged — albeit more slowly and with more effort.

“The landing didn't help”
Roger Wiens

“We had originally hoped we could publish a series of papers within a year,” says Wiens. It has taken much longer than that, but a series of four papers have now been published in Space Science Reviews 1,2,3,4, and a fifth follows this week in Science 5. A preliminary paper was also published last year6.

The team remains hopeful that they will soon be able to complete the main goal of their original mission: solving the mystery of the unique isotopic signature of different objects in our galaxy.

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