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 (JPL), Pasadena, CA. “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

“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

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 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, DC.
Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Denver, 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 the Johnson Space Center.

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