Probe Crash Samples Salvaged

The Genesis capsule is shown after falling to Earth, Sept. 8, 2004, in Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. Hollywood stunt pilots were supposed to snatch the capsule's parachute with a hook as it floated down at 400 feet per minute. But the capsule tumbled out of control.
NASA
NASA scientists said Friday they had recovered some intact materials from the wreckage of the Genesis space capsule that crashed this week and were hopeful that the mission to gather solar atoms could be salvaged.

"We should be able to meet many, if not all, of our science goals," said physicist Roger C. Wiens of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which designed one of the devices that trapped the solar bits during the 884-day mission.

Scientists have been peering inside the capsule with flashlights and mirrors, finding intact parts. Some 350 palm-sized wafers make up five disks that were open to the solar wind during the mission, collecting atoms from the sun.

"We want to try to get out as much of those (wafers) as we can," Wiens said.

The approximately 350 palm-sized wafers make up the five disks that were open to the solar wind during the mission, collecting atoms from the sun.

The Genesis space capsule crashed while returning to Earth on Wednesday, slamming into the ground at nearly 200 mph after parachutes failed to open. It cracked open like a clamshell, and left an inner canister containing the disks badly damaged.

Scientists had feared the wafers shattered like glass in the crash, and many of them did. But they were surprised to find some wafers fully intact, and were characterizing it as good news.

Those platters were packed so tightly in the wreckage of the crash, it took scientists more than a day to pry them apart and inspect the precious cargo.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory planned a teleconference news briefing later Friday to discuss what they called "significant developments in the recovery of solar samples."

NASA engineers were stunned Wednesday when neither parachute deployed aboard the Genesis capsule and the craft plummeted to the ground at nearly 200 mph, breaking open like a clamshell and exposing its collection of solar atoms to contamination.

"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," reports CBS News Correspondent Steve Futterman at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "There was just dead silence here."

Why did 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.