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Crash Hasn't Cost Genesis Its Mission

Samples of solar wind aboard are still usable. Computer failure may have caused the accident.

September 11, 2004|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Most of the contents of NASA's Genesis space probe appear to be intact and usable despite the craft's crash landing in the Utah desert, researchers said Friday.

"We should be able to meet many, if not all, of our science goals," said Roger C. Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, a principal investigator.

The $264-million mission was designed to gather components of solar wind and return them to Earth for analysis. Scientists think the materials are remnants of the original cloud of gas and dust that formed the solar system and may provide insight into how the solar system was formed.

The team's hopes were seemingly dashed Wednesday when the capsule's parachute failed to open during its return and it crashed into the desert floor at about 200 mph, rupturing its external and internal canisters and exposing their contents to contamination.

But an early examination indicated that damage was not as bad as had been feared.

"Yesterday [Thursday] morning, we had great cause for optimism in that, while exploring the canister with a flashlight and a mirror on a stick, we were able to find that one of our primary science objective materials, the solar concentrator target, appears intact," said Genesis payload manager Don Sevilla of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

And even though many of the 350 palm-sized silicon wafers that hold the solar samples were broken, he said, a surprising number were intact and did not appear to be severely contaminated. Even those that are broken should be able to reveal their secrets, he added.

"We are quite confident that we can achieve a high degree of success," Wiens said.

The capsule is now at the Dugway Proving Ground laboratory in Utah, where the team is exploring how to remove the external canister. "We'll be doing some sawing and snipping," Sevilla said.

But right now the team is simply collecting the appropriate tools. "We were not prepared for this operation," he said.

Once the inner canister is removed, it will be transported to Johnson Space Center in Houston, but researchers probably won't try to remove its contents for many months.

The team probably will have to simulate any potential decontamination process on silicon wafers artificially loaded with ions similar to those found on the Genesis disks, said Don Burnett of Caltech, another principal investigator.

The wafers inside the canister "are not going to be touched until we know how to keep them safe," he said.The team does not know why the parachute failed to deploy, but the researchers said the fault did not appear to lie in the parachute assembly.

There are three separate pyrotechnic devices that should have fired to deploy the parachute, and none of them received an electrical signal to ignite, said chief engineer Gentry Lee of JPL.

"The message never arrived," he said. That suggests the failure occurred in the computer controlling the craft's descent.

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