Flash Gordon Left Me The Keys

The TEST OF ALL MOTHERS

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

 
NASA space probe crashes in desert

NASA's high hopes for a clean reading of the sun's atomic signature seemed dead Wednesday after the 450-pound Genesis spacecraft came tumbling down in Utah, where it landed with a terrible thud.The space capsule's parafoil -- a gliding parachute -- did not open on descent. So the craft's three-year mission came to an end with an estimated 194-mph tumble past two helicopters hired by NASA to snare it. The encounter was intended to prevent the cargo, a collection of fragile plates bearing particles from the solar wind, from being destroyed in a collision with Earth.Recovery crews found remains of the refrigerator-sized craft half-buried in a self-dug crater in a salt flat's barren soil. They did not retrieve it immediately, fearing an explosive device that had failed to jettison the parafoil on descent might yet explode.One commentator at NASA's post-crash news conference said it looked like the cargo container inside had been breached. If so, the contents would be exposed to contamination.Andrew Dantzler, NASA's solar science director, said the condition of the delicate experimental plates was not known. "Once we get the capsule into the clean room" at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, he said, "we'll examine it."He conceded Wednesday's crash was not the worst-possible scenario, because the capsule embedded itself in soft desert soil. Hitting anything harder would have made it a "total loss."Don Sweetnam, NASA's Genesis project manager, admitted the crash was a bitter disappointment -- especially for the scientists and engineers who'd poured their careers into it for almost a decade."Starting out this morning at JPL [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory] things looked great," he said. "... we're now in the process of beginning recovery."The $260-million mission's major goal was to bring home the most accurate measurement ever taken of particles that make up the solar wind, a stream of highly charged particles emitted by the sun. Those individual atoms were collected by the extra-pure plates of gold, silicon, sapphire and diamond.While the landing failure was a blow to a NASA still recovering from last year's space shuttle Columbia disaster, experts said it does not necessarily hint at deeper systemic issues."Sending something into deep space for three years and then making it work as it comes back is hard," said John Logsdon, a space policy specialist at George Washington University. "I think it was a very risky mission that unfortunately didn't work."Howard McCurdy, a space historian at American University, said NASA began overhauling its robotic space program after the loss of both the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander in 1999. Genesis, launched in 2001, "may represent an era that already has passed," McCurdy said, "and for which adjustments already have been made.""Part of this risky business is to prepare for contingencies," said Chris Jones, director for solar system exploration at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "And this was one of the most possible -- though remote -- contingencies."Now we hope to learn how this occurred," he said, to avoid a recurrence.One current mission, called Stardust, was launched in 1999 and is to return a sample of comet dust in a parachute reentry over Utah in January, 2006. NASA officials said it is too late to make any fundamental design changes in that mission.Even though the sample Genesis was returning was small -- probably less than a few grains of salt, but nevertheless billions of atoms -- it was expected to contain enough material to keep scientists busy for years.The fundamental research idea was to measure the constant outflow of atoms that boil off the sun's incandescent surface. It is thought that the sun's outer layer still represents the original cloud of dust and gas, the nebula, that collapsed 4.6 billion years ago to create the sun, the Earth and the other eight planets.A good reading of the sun's chemistry presumably would give scientists a baseline from which they could measure how the solar system's planets, asteroids and even dust have evolved since they formed. With Wednesday's crash, the questions may remain unanswered.The Genesis craft was the fifth in a series of relatively low-cost solar system exploration projects under NASA's Discovery program, created in 1992 under former administrator's Daniel Goldin's "faster, cheaper, better" philosophy for space probes. "The theory of the Discovery program was that you were going to have a diversity of missions and that you would expect that not all of them would succeed," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit research organization.Another Discovery-class mission was lost in 2002 when the Comet Nucleus Tour spacecraft disappeared after a scheduled engine firing a few weeks after launch. Among the program's success stories: the Mars Pathfinder that landed on the Red Planet in July 1997 and deployed its tiny Sojourner rover. That mission demonstrated the feasibility of using air bags to cushion a landing on Mars, an approach used in landing two larger rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, that now are exploring opposite sides of the planet.

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