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Genesis Samples Sent For Scrutiny

The first solar-wind samples recovered from the crashed Genesis space capsule have been sent to researchers in California.

Three years after it was launched, Genesis returned to Earth on Sept. 8, but it crashed into the western Utah desert when its parachutes failed to deploy.

"Everyone was thrilled as they saw the pictures of the spacecraft coming back, and it just changed — it was like a 180-degree turnabout as it suddenly crashed on the surface of the Earth," reported CBS News Correspondent Steve Futterman at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "There was just dead silence here."

National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists at Michael Army Air Field at Dugway Proving Ground have been extracting samples plates from the smashed capsule, hoping to recover enough material for substantive study.

The space agency announced Thursday that the first recovered samples have been sent to researcher Nishizumi Kunihiko at the University of California-Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory.

"This is the first batch in what we are growing more confident will be many more scientifically valuable samples," said Don Sweetnam, Genesis project manager from Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The recovered material sent to California included three of the "lid foils" that were attached to the interior lid of the sample return capsule and were exposed to the solar wind throughout the voyage.

Sweetnam said NASA may have been able to retrieve 75 to 80 percent of the lid foils.

NASA workers at Dugway continue to work on the collector arrays — plates that were periodically exposed to solar wind during the mission. Researchers hope the particles embedded in the collector plates will answer questions about the solar system's origins.

There has been no date set for when the arrays, many of which were broken upon impact, will be shipped from Utah.

Three members of the Genesis team arrived in Utah on Monday with a special device to help handle the science canister's stack of four collector arrays, and they were able to remove the stack as one piece.

The team started disassembling the arrays and found that several large pieces of collector plates remained, including one entire hexagon plate.

Many plates are broken, but investigators believe they can retrieve usable information from them anyway.

Why the effort (and more than $264 million) to capture a few wisps of the solar wind? Explains Harwood, it's because those traces are expected to serve as a sort of cosmic Rosetta stone, providing critical insights into the birth and evolution of our solar system.

The streaming solar wind originates in the sun's outer atmosphere. It is made up of electrons, protons and trace amounts of various atomic nuclei that are unchanged since the birth of the solar system.

In that sense, the solar wind is nothing less than a sample of the original cloud of gas and dust that coalesced to form the sun and its retinue of planet some 4.6 billion years ago. Capturing a sample of this raw material is the goal of NASA's innovative Genesis mission.

CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood has covered America's space program full time for nearly 20 years, focusing on space shuttle operations, planetary exploration and astronomy. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood provides up-to-the-minute space reports for CBS News and regularly contributes to Spaceflight Now and The Washington Post.
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