Genesis nearing its end

NASA's Genesis capsule is set to return to Earth and where it will be captured through an unconventional recovery method for space payload.
By | Published: August 19, 2004 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Genesis spacecraft in collection mode
This artist’s conception shows the Genesis spacecraft in collection mode, gathering and storing samples of solar wind particles.
August 19, 2004
Genesis, the fifth mission of NASA’s Discovery program — missions used to enhance our understanding of the solar system with focused, high-quality, low-cost planetary science investigations — is on its way home. Currently 808,000 miles (1.3 million kilometers) away, Genesis will return to Earth with solar samples September 8.

Launched in July 2001, the Genesis mission will return solar particles that may provide clues to the Sun’s composition and the state of the early solar system. The collection occurred at 1 percent of the distance from Earth to the Sun. The mission will return the first samples from space since the final Apollo lunar mission in 1972.

“What a prize Genesis will be,” explains Don Burnett, the Genesis principal investigator. “Our spacecraft has logged almost 27 months far beyond the Moon’s orbit, collecting atoms from the Sun. With it, we should be able to say what the Sun is composed of, at a level of precision for planetary science purposes that has never been seen before.”

Collected on five arrays, the samples were securely housed in the return capsule. The individual wafers that make up these arrays are composed of materials including silicon, gold, sapphire, and diamond.

Helicoptor practices capture of Genesis return capsule
Helicoptor boom snags parafoil attached to descending Genesis capsule.

A specially modified helicopter with a boom and winch underneath snags the parafoil chute attached to a model Genesis sample return capsule. The hook on the end of the boom collapses the chute, allowing the helicopter to retrieve the capsule in mid-air.

Some four hours from re-entry, the Genesis team will turn the spacecraft to an ideal position to release the capsule. The re-oriented capsule will enter Earth’s atmosphere above Oregon, with a path toward Utah. At an altitude of 20.5 miles (33 km), a drogue parachute will deploy to slow the descent. Minutes later, the main parafoil will deploy, slowing the capsule to about 10 mph.

Two helicopters, each with a crew crews of three, will fly in formation to grab the capsule beginning at 4,500 feet. Each helicopter will deploy an 18-foot pole with a hook. Secured to the belly of the aircraft, the hook is designed to collapse and snag the parafoil. When caught, the hooked capsule will be lowered on a cable to the ground crew. In case the first helicopter misses the payload, the second will try. The capsule must be captured above 500 feet.

Should aerial recovery fail, the damage could be minimal or disastrous depending on whether impact occurs on a smooth desert surface or in mountainous terrain.

The payload will be transported to a clean room at the Michael Army Air Field. Later, it will be sent to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the samples will be studied and sent to scientists worldwide.

If the Genesis team determines conditions aren’t good for capturing the capsule, it can postpone the re-entry. The back up capture attempt is scheduled for March 2005.