Genesis solar probe launched
By Amanda Barnett
(CNN) -- After being delayed several times last week by rainy weather, the sun cooperated on Wednesday, allowing NASA to launch an unmanned probe on a science mission to capture tiny flecks of the solar wind and bring them back to Earth.
Riding atop a Delta II rocket, the Genesis satellite sailed through partly clouds skies at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Liftoff was on time at 12:13 p.m. EDT. The satellite later successfully separated from its rocket, according to launch controllers.
"All spacecraft telemetry looks excellent," said deputy mission manager Gene Brower.
Shedding light on the origin of the universe
The wristwatch-shaped Genesis probe's name means origin or beginning. And that's exactly what NASA hopes to 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 a three-month journey, Genesis will park 930,000 miles from Earth -- a place where scientists say the gravitational pulls of the Earth and the sun are balanced. The satellite then will unfold its bejeweled frying pan-shaped solar collectors.
"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.
Soaking up some solar wind
The Genesis collectors are small, palm-size 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.
In September 2004, it will plummet toward the desert at the U.S. Air Force's Utah Testing and Training Range.
But Genesis won't land.
A dramatic finale
After kicking off the main part of the spacecraft, a capsule holding the solar samples will plunge toward the ground. Then a parachute will open to slow the capsule's fall and, before it hits 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 scientists waiting on the ground.
"We are going to capture this re-entry capsule out of the air in a helicopter snatch," said Burnett. "It will be a very exciting thing to see."
The reason for the extra soft landing? NASA doesn't want to jar any of the capsule's 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 said that in about 10 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.
If Genesis is successful, it will be the first spacecraft to bring back extraterrestrial materials to Earth since the Apollo astronauts brought back moon rocks.
Genesis originally was scheduled for launch on July 30, but liftoff was delayed because of concerns about power converters in the probe's navigation system. After managers determined the converters were working properly, several other launch attempts were scrubbed because of thick clouds and rainy weather.
Project managers were able to sneak in another try between Monday's launch of a U.S. Air Force Titan IV rocket and Thursday's launch of space shuttle Discovery.
The only concerns during Wednesday's countdown -- a boat that strayed into the Delta booster drop zone and questions about whether Genesis had computer components similar to parts on the Mars Odyssey spacecraft.
The boat quickly was shooed from the launch area.
Managers determined a computer glitch on Mars Odyssey early Wednesday was not a problem for Genesis, according to NASA spokeswoman Martha Heil.
Meanwhile, a Mars Odyssey spokeswoman, Mary Hardin, said there was a minor problem with one of probe's computers, but that no critical data was lost. She described the spacecraft as being in perfect health. Odyssey is scheduled to arrive at Mars on October 24 to orbit the red planet and send back data on the chemical makeup of Mars.
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