Every species that reaches out to the stars has to sing its fingertips. Probably more than once.
One of NASA’s posts on the Astronomy Picture of the Day website is an iconic reminder of the mishaps in our space history.
“A flying saucer from outer space crashed into the Utah desert after being tracked by radar and pursued by helicopters,” reads the photo description, released in November 2018, although NASA does not suggest an alien visit here.
The whipped bowl, half-buried in the desert sand, was actually the encapsulation of the spacecraft Genesis. And it should not touch in such a brutal way.
Launched on August 8, 2001, the Genesis Mission was the space agency’s ambitious effort to send a spacecraft into our home star’s solar wind, collect samples, and return them to Earth.
By collecting data on the composition of the charged particles flowing from the sun’s corona, scientists hoped to accurately determine the composition of the star and learn more about the elements that were around when the planets of the solar system were formed.
To bring us solar wind samples, the Genesis craft was equipped with a sample return capsule containing a container of solar wind materials assembled when the vessel spent two years in orbit around Lagrange point 1 – one of the spots in space where gravity from the earth and sun is accurately balanced.
The vessel caught the solar wind by unfolding a series of collector arrays, each filled with high-purity materials such as aluminum, sapphire, silicon and even gold.
“The materials we used in the Genesis collector arrays had to be physically strong enough to be launched without breaking; keep the sample while heated by the sun during collection, and be clean enough for us to analyze the solar wind elements after the Earth’s return. , “explained project researcher Amy Jurewicz on September 3, 2004.
Five days later, this test capsule and its precious arrays smashed into the ground in Utah at an estimated speed of 310 km / h (193 mph).
What was to happen was quite different – 127 seconds after returning to the atmosphere, a mortar aboard the capsule would blow and release a preliminary parachute to slow down and stabilize the descent.
Then a main parachute should inflate and give the capsule a gentle descent into the Utah Test and Training Range.
In the crash picture you can see helicopters – they hovered nearby, ready to catch the capsule in the air and ferry it directly to a clean room to avoid contamination of the samples.
None of these parachutes inserted.
After a thorough examination, the defect was traced back to a set of sensors, almost not the size of the metallic end of a pencil. They had been installed backwards.
These small units were to detect the rising g-forces as the capsule crashed to the ground, triggering the insertion of the parachutes.
As you can imagine, the crash led to serious injuries that destroyed several of the arrays and contaminated the precious cargo inside.
Once the sample capsule was retrieved from the heart-sinking site where it was dead, the project team set about retrieving everything that could still be recovered and examined.
Fortunately, the Genesis mission was not completely destroyed, even after such a dramatic arrival of the test capsule. Some of the robust collector materials survived, and scientists managed to clean the surfaces without disturbing the solar material embedded inside.
Within three years, a series of papers were published on the Genesis findings. Thanks to the daring mission, we learned unprecedented details about the composition of the sun and the fundamental differences between our star and the inner planets of the solar system.
“The sun houses more than 99 percent of the material currently in our solar system, so it’s a good idea to get to know it better,” said Genesis researcher Don Burnett of the California Institute of Technology in 2011.
“Although it was more challenging than expected, we have answered some important questions and as all successful missions generated much more.”
A version of this story was first published in November 2018.