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Friday, August 20, 2004

NASA Mission Returns With a Piece of the Sun

In a dramatic ending that marks a beginning in scientific research, NASA's Genesis spacecraft is set to swing by Earth and jettison a sample return capsule filled with particles of the Sun that may ultimately tell us more about the genesis of our solar system.
"The Genesis mission -- to capture a piece of the Sun and return it to Earth -- is truly in the NASA spirit: a bold, inspiring mission that makes a fundamental contribution to scientific knowledge," said Steven Brody, NASA's program executive for the Genesis mission, NASA Headquarters, Washington.
On September 8, 2004, the drama will unfold over the skies of central Utah when the spacecraft's sample return capsule will be snagged in midair by helicopter. The rendezvous will occur at the Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range, southwest of Salt Lake City.
"What a prize Genesis will be," said Genesis Principal Investigator Dr. Don Burnett of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. "Our spacecraft has logged almost 27 months far beyond the moon's orbit, collecting atoms from the Sun. With it, we should be able to say what the Sun is composed of, at a level of precision for planetary science purposes that has never been seen before."
The prizes Burnett and company are waiting for are hexagonal wafers of pure silicon, gold, sapphire, diamond and other materials that have served as a celestial prison for their samples of solar wind particles. These wafers have weathered 26-plus months in deep space and are now safely stowed in the return capsule. If the capsule were to descend all the way to the ground, some might fracture or break away from their mountings; hence, the midair retrieval by helicopter, with crew members including some who have performed helicopter stunt work for Hollywood.
"These guys fly in some of Hollywood's biggest movies," said Don Sweetnam, Genesis project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "But this time, the Genesis capsule will be the star." The Genesis capsule -- carrying the agency's first sample return since the final Apollo lunar mission in 1972, and the first material collected beyond the Moon -- will enter Earth's atmosphere at 9:55 am Mountain Time. Two minutes and seven seconds after atmospheric entry, while still flying supersonically, the capsule will deploy a drogue parachute at 33 kilometers (108,000 feet) altitude. Six minutes after that, the main parachute, a parafoil, will deploy 6.1 kilometers (20,000 feet) up. Waiting below will be two helicopters and their flight crews looking for their chance to grab a piece of the Sun.
"Each helicopter will carry a crew of three," said Roy Haggard, chief executive officer of Vertigo Inc. and director of flight operations for the lead helicopter. "The lead helicopter will deploy an eighteen-and-a-half foot long pole with what you could best describe as an oversized, Space-Age fishing hook on its end. When we make the approach we want the helicopter skids to be about eight feet above the top of the parafoil. If for some reason the capture is not successful, the second helicopter is 1,000 feet behind us and setting up for its approach. We estimate we will have five opportunities to achieve capture."
The helicopter that does achieve capture will carry the sample canister to a clean room at the Michael Army Air Field at the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, where scientists await their cosmic prize. The samples will then be moved to a special laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, where they will be preserved and studied by scientists for many years to come.
"I understand much of the interest is in how we retrieve Genesis," added Burnett. "But to me the excitement really begins when scientists from around the world get hold of those samples for their research. That will be something."
JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the Genesis mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, developed and operates the spacecraft. Los Alamos National Laboratory and NASA's Johnson Space Center contributed to Genesis payload development, and the Johnson Space Center will curate the sample and support analysis and sample allocation.
More detailed background on the mission is available at http://jpl.convio.net/site/R?i=owtwJtBoz19O-3BCLCXxIg.. .


Future Mission Concepts May Become Reality
08.12.04 The murky, auburn tones of the Keyhole Nebula.
NASA is considering nine astrophysics experiments that could pave the way toward future space missions designed to reveal the nature of the universe and how life was formed. The candidates are mission hopefuls for becoming part of NASA's Astronomical Search for Origins Program. Operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the Origins Program seeks to answer the basic questions regarding our universe and the origin of life. Selected from a pool of 26 proposals, the concept finalists offer an array of experiments and methods for studying astronomical objects and their chemical composition. Researchers now have eight months to refine their projects to outline mission objectives and possible spacecraft design. Image to right: Scientists want to know more about the soupy mix of free-floating organic compounds that led to life in the universe. Credit: NASA Many of the projects plan to investigate the universe as it exists today, while others will use their technology to peer back in time to examine the cosmic past. One such instrument could be the Hubble Origins Probe. With its powerful sensors and camera, the Hubble Origins Probe concept proposes the construction of a highly-advanced space-based telescope. The Probe would use instruments originally designed for the Hubble Space Telescope to analyze the birth of individual stars, planets and black holes that formed millions of year ago. One a broader scale, the Baryonic Structure Probe intends to detect and map the flow of chemical matter into early galaxies. Understanding the path of these galactic chemical currents would give scientists tremendous insight into the twisting and churning mechanics of the universe. Many scientists believe the universe is expanding outward from a central point and occupying more and more space. The Cosmic Inflation Probe aims to measure the shape of the universe's expansion by locating galaxies that formed early in history. The immediate location of the galaxies would be compared with their beginning position and used to define the shape of their expansion.
The Hubble Space Telescope gliding above the Earth.

Image to left: Deep space research missions like the Hubble Space Telescope have shown us a universe we previously only dreamed existed. Future missions will extend our reach into the cosmos and allow us to discover the principles and mechanisms for the development of galaxies, planets and life. Credit: NASA Focusing on more than just the past, scientists are also devising ways to scan the present cosmos. The Origins Billion Star Survey mission intends to count all of the larger planets in the Milky Way, as well as the stars within 30,000 light years of the Sun. Looking to understand the building blocks of life, the Astrobiology Space InfraRed Explorer observatory will search for organic materials in space and attempt to identify how they enter a planet's environment. Time will tell which designs make it from the drawing board to the launch pad. Whatever the results, individually or collectively, any of one of these missions may show us the universe of yesterday, how it exists today, or where it might be tomorrow.

Charlie Plain
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center