DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah -- The Genesis space capsule, which had orbited the sun for three years gathering potential clues to the origin of the solar system, crashed to Earth and cracked open Wednesday, exposing its collection of solar atoms to contamination.
Flight engineers suspect a set of tiny explosives failed to trigger the capsule's parachutes, and the capsule slammed into the Utah desert at 193 mph.
A recovery team that includes Genesis project members was dispatched to the crash site Wednesday afternoon on a salvage mission.
Scientists were hopeful they could salvage the broken disks that held billions of charged atoms collected from the solar wind, and perhaps still unravel clues about the origin and evolution of our solar system.
"This is actually not the worst-case scenario," said Andrew Dantzler, director of NASA's solar system division, noting the capsule embedded itself in soft desert soil and avoided hitting anything harder that would have made it a "total loss."
'Mishap review board'
NASA planned to appoint a "mishap review board" within 72 hours that could take two to four months to determine a reason for the failure of the six-year, $260 million mission.
The mishap raised questions about the durability of another NASA sample-return capsule called Stardust, due to land here in 2006. But that capsule was built to be more rugged and will land on its own with a parachute.
A helicopter was supposed to grab the Genesis capsule almost a mile above the Utah desert and lower it gently to the salt flats. But before the retrieval team learned of the parachute failure, the speeding capsule had slammed into the ground.
"There was a big pit in my stomach," said physicist Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, which designed the atom collector plates. "This just wasn't supposed to happen. We're going to have a lot of work picking up the pieces."
A recovery team was working to retrieve the capsule, buried halfway underground 30 miles northwest of this Army base on a bombing range. It was uncertain whether the capsule could be brought quickly to a clean room for an inspection.
The spacecraft was designed and built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colo. southwest of Denver. A company spokeswoman said engineers were beginning to analyze the failure with NASA, but had no immediate comment.
The helicopters were supposed to snatch the capsule's parachute with a hook as it floated down at 400 feet a minute, or more than 6 feet per second. But the capsule tumbled out of control. It was supposed to be spinning at 15 revolutions a minute to slice evenly through the atmosphere, but camera images showed it tumbling instead.
The solar wind is a stream of highly charged particles that are emitted by the sun. Scientists hoped the charged atoms gathered in the capsule -- a "billion billion" of them -- would reveal clues about the origin and evolution of our solar system, said Don Burnett, Genesis' principal investigator and a nuclear geochemist at California Institute of Technology.
"We have for years wanted to know the composition of the sun," Burnett said before the crash. He said scientists had expected to analyze the material "one atom at a time."
The Genesis mission, launched in 2001, marked the first time NASA has collected any objects from farther than the moon for retrieval to Earth.
Together, the charged atoms captured over 884 days on the capsule's five disks of gold, sapphire, diamond and silicone were no bigger than a few grains of salt, but scientists say that would be enough to reconstruct the chemical origin of the sun and its family of planets.
The five disks were of different thicknesses, which could make it easier for scientists to sort out shattered remnants and put pieces back together like a puzzle, Wiens said.
Scientists had expected to study the material for five more years.
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