Published online 13 September 2004 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news040913-2


Genesis wreck promises data

Solar wind material may yet be gleaned from NASA probe.

Scientists are beginning the task of cataloguing the shattered contents of the craft’s science canister.Scientists are beginning the task of cataloguing the shattered contents of the craft’s science canister.© NASA

NASA has commissioned a panel of experts to work out what went wrong with the Genesis space probe, which crashed to Earth on 8 September.

In the meantime, scientists are picking through the wreckage to see what data can be salvaged from the broken craft.

"The prospects for our highest priority objectives are good, although we probably won't be able to do everything we wanted," says Don Burnett, principal scientist for the Genesis project and a geochemist from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Initial inspections show that the craft split open on landing, exposing many of the detectors to contamination by Earth's air and soil. Many of the fragile wafers of gold, silicon, diamond and sapphire inside the craft were also smashed to bits.

But scientists expect to be able to piece together many of the broken wafers. And it should be possible to wipe away molecules of air from the wafer surfaces, says Burnett, although if dirt has landed on them, they will prove harder to clean.

Scientists are glad, at least, that it was not raining. It would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to rid the detectors of contamination by water, they say.

Fly on a windshield

The Genesis mission, which cost US$260 million, was designed to catch some of the solar wind. The probe was in space for more than two years, during which time it collected tiny amounts of hydrogen, helium, oxygen and other atoms as they flew at speed out of the Sun. Since the outer layers of the Sun are thought to have remained unchanged for 4.5 billion years, an analysis of these elements should tell scientists something about how the Solar System formed.

Michael Ryschkewitsch, director of the Applied Engineering and Technology Directorate at the Goddard Space Flight Center, will lead NASA's Genesis Mishap Investigation Board, which hopes to find out what went wrong. At the moment, all that is known for sure is that the craft's parachutes did not deploy, leaving it to smash into the desert at more than 200 kilometres per hour.

Initial speculation has focused on a battery on board Genesis, which had been overheating since shortly after launch in 2001. But David Lindstrom, a Genesis programme scientist based at NASA headquarters in Washington, says a similar battery performed well at these higher temperatures in the lab. Had the battery failed, it would have prevented a small explosive from freeing the craft's parachutes.

In too deep

Researchers will be especially keen to find the root of the problem, as NASA's Stardust mission will use a similar parachute system. The mission, which has successfully collected material from a comet's tail, is due to return to the same spot in Utah as Genesis in 2006.

"Our failure does not automatically mean that the Stardust parachute will also fail. This is obviously a question that will be intensely studied," says Burnett. "Remember that we have deployed parachutes successfully on Mars several times. The problems of Genesis may be unique."