NASA's Genesis spacecraft performed a critical trajectory maneuver September 6, putting it on a precise course for plunging into Earth's atmosphere and fireballing its way toward the Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR), southwest of Salt Lake City.
Loaded with an invaluable set of solar wind particles, Genesis is headed for a September 8 skydive into the UTTR where an awaiting helicopter crew will attempt to snare in mid-air the spacecraft's return capsule.
Genesis recovery teams are at the ready for Wednesday's air show at the UTTR, completing over the weekend a rehearsal of actions to be taken on reentry and recovery day.
The Genesis sample return capsule will be caught in midair by a specially equipped helicopter. Doing so avoids a far-rougher ground landing and better preservation of the delicate wafers that hold particles of the Sun captured far from Earth.
Right on the money
The maneuver this morning was "right on the money", said Kenny Starnes, the Genesis spacecraft Team Chief at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company in Denver, Colorado. The firm designed and built the spacecraft, is carrying out maneuvers of the craft, and monitors the probe's overall health.
"Everything looks perfect...just what we hoped for," Starnes told SPACE.com. Following the Genesis maneuver this morning, engineers will be assessing through the day the spacecraft's exact position and overall health status, he said.
Tense hours are still ahead for Genesis mission operators. Release of the sample return capsule from the main body of the Genesis spacecraft is critical. So is hitting an exact keyhole in the Earth's atmosphere that drops the Genesis capsule into UTTR airspace.
Heading for cleanrooms
The Genesis specimens now en route to Utah are NASA's first return samples beyond Earth since the final Apollo lunar moonwalk mission in 1972, and the first material collected beyond the Moon.
On Wednesday, the Genesis sample return capsule will enter Earth's atmosphere at 9:55 A.M. local Mountain Time. Two minutes and seven seconds after atmospheric entry and still flying supersonically, the capsule will deploy a drogue parachute at 108,000 feet (33 kilometers) altitude. Six minutes after that, the main parachute, the parafoil, will deploy 20,000 feet (6.1 kilometers) up.
Helicopter teams will be at the ready to snare the sample canister as it glides across the UTTR. Once the mid-air retrieval is achieved, the sample return capsule will be flown to Michael Army Air Field at the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground in Utah where a ground team will place the capsule in a specially-built clean room for initial handling.
The sample-holding capsule will then be trucked to a laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Once at that location, the Genesis capsule will be opened and the solar particles extracted, preserved and cataloged under ultra-pure cleanroom conditions.
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Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.