Image: Genesis payload
Douglas C. Pizac  /  AP
The Genesis spacecraft's payload is brought into a hangar on a forklift for examination Wednesday at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
By Senior space writer
updated 9/10/2004 9:41:57 PM ET 2004-09-11T01:41:57

The crash landing of the Genesis sample return capsule has left space engineers and scientists sifting for answers, not only regarding what caused the mishap, but whether science can still be salvaged from its precious cargo of solar particles.

A preliminary but leading candidate for the calamity is a battery failure onboard the capsule. That battery was to have initiated a series of explosive charges that would have deployed a parachute system, slowing the capsule down to permit a midair helicopter recovery.

An electronic glitch in the sample return capsule — or perhaps a problem with an onboard gravity sensor — are also being weighed as possible items that triggered the crash.

Internal injuries
The 420-pound (205-kilogram) capsule slammed to the desert floor of the Utah Test and Training Range at an estimated speed of 193 miles per hour, more than the 100 mph first reported by one NASA official. Initial looks at the capsule showed that the craft’s sample container, inside an outer housing, was breached in the high-speed impact.

NASA has begun creation of a Genesis investigation board to determine the root cause of the mishap. That detective work is likely to be a much easier task, compared with a spacecraft problem cropping up far from Earth.

Total cost of the Genesis mission is $264 million.

Setback, but not a total failure?
"As you know, this can be risky business," Andrew Dantzler, solar system division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington, told reporters here Wednesday. Contingency plans have been enacted, he said.

"Safety for all personnel is our top priority," Dantzler said. "Our first immediate objective is to ensure that our ground teams are in no danger from any potential unexploded ordnance in the payload as we safe the spacecraft."

Initial inspection of the capsule showed that sets of onboard explosive devices designed to deploy the parachute setup had not fired.

Ground crews that first reached the capsule — sitting at an angle with half its diameter below surface — found it relatively intact, much to their surprise. A recent rain here appears to have softened the desert floor, perhaps contributing to the capsule remaining somewhat together. A large exterior crack was evident, however.

"The science samples have been returned to Earth, but we don’t know the state of the collectors that hold the science just yet. We’ll be learning that over the hours, days and weeks to come." Dantzler said.

The mishap board "will immediately look at all the data, film of the spacecraft coming in, and telemetry leading up to atmospheric entry," Dantzler told

"It’s a difficult moment right now," said Don Sweetnam, Genesis project manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. He has been working on the Genesis project since 1997. The craft launched in 2001 and collected particles of solar wind.

"We’re in a situation where the scientists … are going to have to deal with a lot more contamination of samples than they had planned," Sweetnam said.

Shovels in hand
Helicopters flew to the crash site Wednesday afternoon to retrieve the samples. The science canister was taken from inside the probe and brought back to facilities at the Dugway Proving Ground, where scientists can begin to figure out what they have to work with.

Mission planners had considered the possibility that the Genesis capsule might crash to Earth, not slowed down by its parachute system, said Don Sevilla, Genesis payload recovery lead at JPL. "This is a contingency plan already developed ... already written up, and unfortunately, we are having to walk through it."

Sevilla said the breach of the sample canister brings up a more than normal care-in-handling issue. "We want to maintain our precious cargo ... the collectors that have been returned to Earth."

Link to Stardust?
One irksome aspect to the Genesis capsule problem is a possible link to NASA's Stardust mission. It too is a Discovery-class probe: a cheaper, better, faster design of a spacecraft.

In January 2006, NASA’s Stardust’s return canister of comet and interstellar particles is to parachute into the Utah Test and Training Range.

"While the entry systems are not identical, they do have a common design approach. Many of the materials and philosophies for redundancy are common to Genesis. It’s vitally important that we understand the most probable root cause of this landing failure," said Chris Jones, director for solar system exploration at JPL.

Wait and see
Despite the hard landing of the Genesis canister, officials involved with the project were hopeful that science data might be obtained from the wreckage.

"We’re not going to lose the atoms. They’re not going to come out of the collectors. We'll assess the situation and decide what to do next," said Carlton Allen, astromaterials curator at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "We may well have lost the information about which array the particular shard corresponds to. But all the ions are still there."

Jim Crocker, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s civil space work, which includes building and operating the Genesis spacecraft, said that science might be retrievable from the battered capsule.

"It’s possible. We’ll have to wait and see. We have to start looking and figure out what happened. It appeared that the capsule was tumbling. We had contingencies if we had a hard landing. There are ways to recover some of the science. But we really have to see what the state of the samples are," Crocker said.

One lighthearted quip from a scientist witnessing the Genesis crash landing: "It looks like we’ve already started the Genesis sample distribution process ... not quite in the way that we had envisioned, but we’ll deal with it."

This report includes updates from

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