A JPL-teamed mission to gather and return samples of the solar wind to Earth has been selected as the next flight in NASA's Discovery program of lower cost, highly focused scientific spacecraft.
The Genesis mission is designed to collect samples of the solar wind and return them to laboratories on Earth for detailed analysis. The $216 million mission, led by Dr. Donald Burnett of the California Institute of Technology, will be launched in January 2001 and return isotopes of oxygen, nitrogen, the noble gases, and other elements of the solar wind via an airborne capture vehicle as it plummets toward the floor of the Utah desert in August 2003.
"The Genesis mission is a crucial step in the future of planetary exploration," said Burnett, principal investigator of the mission. "By bringing back solar matter that we can analyze in laboratories on Earth, we will be providing the fundamental data to understand how planets formed in the early history of our solar system."
The Genesis payload is comprised of electron and ion monitors, an ion concentrator and collector arrays to capture particles of the solar wind, which streams outward from the Sun, said Chet Sasaki, Genesis project manager at JPL. "These particles will embed themselves in the collector arrays, which are made primarily of extremely high purity silicon. The collector arrays will later be stowed and returned using a sample return capsule which will separate from the spacecraft and parachute through Earth's atmosphere. Helicopters will catch the vehicle before it hits the ground."
JPL, which will manage the mission for Burnett at Caltech, will work with its industrial partner, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, to develop the spacecraft. Other partners in the mission are Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, which will furnish portions of the payload, and the NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, which will oversee contamination control issues associated with the payload before, during and after the sample is returned to Earth.
The selection of this mission is the second step of a two- step process. In the first step, NASA selected five proposals in April 1997 for detailed four-month feasibility studies. Funded by NASA at $350,000 each, these studies focused on cost, management and technical plans, including small business involvement and educational outreach.
The selected proposals were among 34 proposals originally submitted to NASA in December 1996, in response to a Discovery announcement of opportunity issued on Sept. 20, 1996. As stated in the announcement of opportunity, the initial cost estimates were allowed to grow by a maximum of 20 percent between the April selection and the detailed final proposals.
"This was a very difficult selection, given the first-class science proposed by all five teams," said Dr. Wesley Huntress, associate administrator for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, DC. "We picked two based on our distribution of resources and the excellent fit of the timetables for these missions with other robotic space science explorers. Genesis will give us a sample of the Sun as we are preparing to receive samples of a comet and asteroid from other missions. A second Discovery mission, CONTOUR, will help us better understand the breadth of the 'family of comets,' which are believed to be quite individual in their properties."
CONTOUR (or the Comet Nucleus Tour) was also chosen this year for development under the auspices of the Discovery program. CONTOUR, which will be tracked by JPL's deep space tracking facilities, will take images and comparative spectral maps of at least three comet nuclei and analyze the dust flowing from them.
CONTOUR will be led by Dr. Joseph Veverka of Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, at a total cost to NASA of $154 million. It is scheduled for launch in July 2002, with its first comet flyby to occur in November 2003. This flyby of Comet Encke at a distance of about 100 kilometers (60 miles) will be followed by similar encounters with Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann-3 in June 2006 and Comet d'Arrest in August 2008.
Genesis and CONTOUR follow four previously selected NASA Discovery missions. The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft was launched in February 1996 and returned images of the asteroid Mathilde from a distant flyby in June of this year, on its way to orbit the asteroid Eros in early 1999. The Mars Pathfinder lander, carrying a small robotic rover named Sojourner, touched down on the surface of Mars on July 4, and since has returned hundreds of images and thousands of measurements of the Martian environment.
The Lunar Prospector orbiter mission to map the composition and gravity field of Earth's moon is scheduled for launch in January 1998, and the Stardust mission is designed to gather dust from Comet Wild-2 in 2004 and return it to Earth, following a planned February 1999 launch.
The California Institute of Technology manages the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA.
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