NASA’s Genesis mission is officially open for business
today, as it extends its special collector arrays to catch
atoms from the solar wind. The atoms it collects, believed to
have been part of the solar nebula “cloud” from which our
solar system developed, will help scientists gain a better
understanding of the conditions in the distant past before
the Earth and other planets formed.

Genesis, managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL),
Pasadena, Calif., is the agency’s first sample return mission
since the last Apollo mission in 1972, and the first ever to
return material collected beyond the Moon.

Genesis orbits a point in space, about 1 million miles from
Earth in the direction of the Sun, where the gravities of
Earth and the Sun balance. The spacecraft first opened its
outer shell, then last Friday opened its inner science
canister to reveal collector arrays. Today, these arrays
fanned out like petals to catch heavier atoms of the solar

“We expect to start getting particle hits right away,” said
Dr. Donald Burnett, Genesis principal investigator, of the
California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena. “Now
we’ve gotten to the real focus of the mission: the start of
science, leading to the return in 2004 and the analysis phase
of the mission.”

This treasured smidgen of the Sun will be preserved in a
special laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston,
for study by scientists over the next century. It will help
them answer fundamental questions about the exact composition
of our star and the birth of our solar system.

Sample collection will conclude in April 2004, when the
spacecraft begins its return to Earth. In September of that
year, the samples will arrive on Earth in a dramatic
helicopter capture. As the sample-return capsule parachutes
toward the ground at the Utah Testing and Training Range of
the U.S. Air Force, specially trained helicopter pilots will
catch the capsule in mid-air to prevent the delicate samples
from being disturbed by the impact of a landing.

Scientists say that the surface of the Sun, from which the
solar wind originates, has preserved the composition of the
era when the solar system formed. Study of Genesis’ samples
will yield the average composition of the solar system to
greater accuracy. It will also give clues about the process
that led to the incredible diversity of environments in
today’s solar system.

Genesis carries four 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, to record the speed, density,
temperature and approximate composition of the solar wind
ions; an electron monitor, to make similar measurements of
electrons in the solar wind; and an ion concentrator, to
separate and focus elements like oxygen and nitrogen in the
solar wind into a special collector tile.

The ion and electron monitors were turned on several months
ago in preparation for their role during solar wind
collection. The monitors communicate with Earth frequently
and will give a periodic solar-wind weather report. “It has
been exciting watching the space weather so far,” said Dr.
Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M., head of
the team that operates the instruments. “We’ve had a rather
stormy autumn in space, which has been great for checking out
our instruments.”

JPL, a division of Caltech, manages the mission for NASA’s
Office of Space Science, Washington. 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 and at Johnson Space Center.

Additional information is available on the Internet at: