A Hollywood stunt pilot practiced his catch-a-falling-space-probe act over Utah's western desert, with the real event scheduled Sept. 8. That is when the NASA Genesis probe is to drop a capsule carrying solar wind particles.
On Thursday, one helicopter dropped a 420-pound (190-kilogram) test capsule from an altitude of 15,000 feet (4.5 kilometers).
The capsule deployed a red, white and blue parafoil parachute, slowing its fall over the salt flats.
Dan Rudert, flying a second helicopter dragging an 18-foot (5.5-meter) pole, was guided by Hill Air Force Base radar to the capsule and a hook on the pole snagged the parafoil at about 7,000 feet (2.1 kilometers).
Rudert gently lowered the capsule to close to the ground, where a crew removed the parafoil. The helicopter then carried the capsule to Dugway's Michael Army Air Field.
Rudert, a Salt Lake City native and a stunt pilot whose films included "The Hulk" and "S.W.A.T.," said he wasn't sure what to think when he first heard about the idea of catching an object dropped from space.
"You picture flames coming off of it as it's coming in," he told The Salt Lake Tribune.
The Genesis spacecraft, launched in 2001, spent more than two years at one of Earth's Lagrange points where small objects can maintain a stable solar orbit.
There the probe's collector arrays caught charged particles as they shot off the sun, said Don Sevilla, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
The midair catch is designed to make the capsule's landing as soft as possible. The Genesis' collector plates are fragile and could break if the capsule hits the ground too hard. Even if the helicopter misses, the parafoil should help create a reasonable landing.
The test capsule used Thursday contained instruments to indicate how rough the handling was.