NASA'S next robotic space explorer is ready to do a little sunbathing on a mission to catch a wisp of raw material from the luminous celestial body around which the Earth and other planets revolve.
Genesis, set for launch July 30 from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, is designed to collect tiny pieces of the Sun and return them to Earth. The mission is expected to capture about 10 to 20 micrograms of the solar wind, made up of invisible charged particles expelled by the Sun.
The particles, about the weight of a few grains of salt, will be returned to Earth with a spectacular mid-air helicopter capture. Scientists will preserve this treasured smidgen of the Sun in a special laboratory for study. The researchers hope to answer fundamental questions about the exact composition of our star and the birth of our solar system.
"This mission will be the Rosetta Stone of planetary science data, because it will show us the foundation by which we can judge how our solar system evolved," said Chester Sasaki, Genesis project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "The samples that Genesis returns will show us the composition of the original solar nebula that formed the planets, asteroids, comets and the Sun we know today."
"Genesis will return a small but precious amount of data crucial to our knowledge of the Sun and the formation of our solar system," said Dr. Donald Burnett, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, who is principal investigator and leader of the Genesis mission. "Data from Genesis will provide critical pieces for theories about the birth of the Sun and planets."
In October 2001, Genesis will arrive at a place in space well outside Earth's atmosphere and magnetic environment that will allow it to gather pristine samples of the solar wind.
The spacecraft carries four scientific instruments: bicycle-tire-sized solar-wind collector arrays, made of materials such as diamond, gold, silicon and sapphire, designed to entrap solar wind particles; an ion monitor, which will record the speed, density, temperature and approximate composition of the solar wind; an electron monitor, which will make similar measurements of electrons in the solar wind; and an ion concentrator, which will separate out and focus elements in the solar wind like oxygen and nitrogen into a special collector tile. Sample collection will conclude in April 2004, when the spacecraft returns to Earth. Genesis will be the first mission to return a sample of extraterrestrial material collected beyond the orbit of the Moon.
In September 2004, the solar samples will be returned in a dramatic helicopter capture. As the Genesis return capsule parachutes toward the ground at the U.S. Air Force's Utah Testing and Training Range, specially trained helicopter pilots will catch it on the fly to prevent the delicate samples from being disturbed by the impact of a parachute landing.
The samples will be taken to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the collected materials will be stored and distributed for analysis. Scientists anticipate that, in addition to today's capabilities, new analytical techniques developed in coming decades can be used to study the solar matter returned by Genesis.
Researchers believe the surface of the Sun, from which the solar wind originates, has preserved the composition of the solar nebula from which all the different planetary bodies formed. Study of Genesis' samples is expected to yield the average chemical composition of the solar system to greater accuracy. It will also provide clues to the evolutionary process that has led to the incredible diversity of environments in today's solar system.
Genesis is sponsored by NASA's Discovery Program, which competitively selects low-cost solar system exploration missions with highly focused science goals.
JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, manages the Genesis mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, Colo., designed and built the spacecraft and will operate it jointly with JPL. Major portions of the payload design and fabrication were carried out at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas.
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