NASA to try again to catch some rays
By Amanda Barnett
(CNN) -- Clouds continue to hang over the Cape Canaveral, Florida, launch site for a solar probe designed to capture bits of the sun and bring them back to Earth.
The launch of the Genesis satellite was scrubbed Wednesday minutes before liftoff because of thick clouds. The next launch window is Thursday at 12:27 p.m. EDT, but the forecast calls for "more of the same," said NASA spokesman Don Savage.
Savage said mission managers would get an update on the weather late Wednesday before setting a new launch time. There also is a launch window on Friday.
The probe originally was scheduled for launch Monday, but was delayed to let engineers investigate issues with one of the spacecraft's power converters. A similar component being tested for another project failed. Early Wednesday mission managers said the hardware on Genesis was okay.
Probe designed to bring back bits of sun
The Genesis mission sounds like the plot for a science fiction movie and it even has a Hollywood ending.
When it is launched, the wristwatch shaped satellite will capture a few bits of the sun in bejeweled frying pan-shaped collectors. Then in 2004, the probe will return to Earth, where a helicopter will snag it as it parachutes to the ground.
The probe's name, Genesis, means origin or beginning. And that's exactly what NASA hopes it will help scientists find -- the origin of the universe.
"The chemical and isotopic composition of the sun is the starting composition from which all planets formed," said Don Burnett of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, the project's principal investigator.
After blasting off from Cape Canaveral, the satellite will make a beeline for the sun. After a three-month journey, it will park 930,000 miles from Earth -- a place where scientists say the gravitational pulls of the Earth and the sun are balanced.
"Once it gets there it opens up two covers and deploys high purity materials which are then used to collect the solar wind one atom at a time," Burnett said.
Catching the sun
The Genesis collectors are small, palm-sized hexagon shaped tiles made of silicon, diamond, gold and sapphire. The materials were selected to attract certain elements of the solar wind.
Genesis will spend about two years collecting 10 to 20 micrograms of solar wind -- that's the weight of a few grains of salt. Then, the spaceship closes its lids and heads back to Earth where, in September 2004, it will head toward the desert at the U.S. Air Force's Utah Testing and Training Range.
The samples brought back by Genesis will be the first extraterrestrial materials returned to Earth since the Apollo astronauts brought back moon rocks.
A dramatic finale
Genesis will have a very special welcome home reception that gives new meaning to the phrase, "catching some rays."
After kicking off the main part of the spacecraft, the sample capsule will plunge toward the ground. Then a parachute will open to slow the capsule's fall and before it can hit the ground, two helicopters will swoop in.
The choppers will crisscross the falling capsule's path until one is able to snag it in the air and gently lower it to the ground.
"We are going to capture this re-entry capsule out of the air in a helicopter snatch," said Burnett. "It will be very exciting thing to see."
The reason for the extra soft landing? NASA doesn't want to jar any of the capsule's precious cargo.
NASA already has pilots practicing for the return of Genesis, including some who have worked on Hollywood movies, according to project spokeswoman Martha Heil. She says that in about ten practice tests, all catches have been successful.
After landing, the solar samples will be stored in ultra-clean facilities at Johnson Space Center in Houston, where scientists will study them over the next century.
And for Burnett and other scientists, that's the real beginning of the mission.
"The really fun part of it is discovering actual answers about what solar composition is," said Burnett.
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