DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, UTAH - The crash landing of the Genesis sample return capsule has left space engineers and scientists sifting for answers, not only regarding what caused the mishap, but whether science can still be salvaged from its precious cargo of solar particles.
A preliminary but leading candidate for the calamity is a battery failure onboard the capsule. That battery was to have initiated a series of explosive charges that would have deployed a parachute system, slowing the capsule down to permit a mid-air helicopter recovery.
An electronic glitch in the sample return capsule -- or perhaps a problem with an onboard gravity sensor -- are also being weighed as possible items that triggered the crash.
The 420-pound (205 kilogram) capsule slammed to the desert floor of the Utah Test and Training Range at an estimated speed of 193 miles per hour, more than the 100 mph first reported by one NASA official. Initial looks at the capsule showed that the craft's sample container, inside an outer housing, was breached in the high-speed impact.
NASA has begun creation of a Genesis investigation board to determine the root cause of the mishap. That detective work is likely to be a much easier task compared to a spacecraft problem cropping up far from Earth.
Total cost of the Genesis missions is $264 million.
Setback, but not a total failure?
"As you know, this can be risky business," Andrew Dantzler, Solar System Division Director at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. told reporters here today. Contingency plans have been enacted, he said.
"Safety for all personnel is our top priority," Dantzler said. Our first immediate objective is to ensure that our ground teams are in no danger from any potential unexploded ordnance in the payload as we safe the spacecraft."
Initial inspection of the capsule showed that sets of onboard explosive devices designed to deploy the parachute setup had not fired.
Ground crews that first reached the capsule - sitting at an angle and half its diameter below surface - found it relatively intact, much to their surprise. A recent rain here appears to have softened the desert floor, perhaps contributing to the capsule remaining somewhat together. A large exterior crack was evident, however.
"The science samples have been returned to Earth, but we don't know the state of the collectors that hold the science just yet. We'll be learning that over the hours, days and weeks to come." Dantzler said.
The mishap board "will immediately look at all the data, film of the spacecraft coming in, and telemetry leading up to atmospheric entry," Dantzler told SPACE.com.
"It's a difficult moment right now," said Don Sweetnam, Genesis project Manager from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. He has been working on the Genesis project since 1997. The craft launched in 2001 and collected particles of solar wind.
"We're in a situation where the scientists...are going to have to deal with a lot more contamination of samples than they had planned," Sweetnam said.
Shovels in hand
Ground crews are now determining how best to extract the Genesis return capsule from its impact spot, said Don Sevilla, Genesis Payload Recovery Lead at JPL.
"We do have to dig it out. In real time they'll have to assess whether they will open the capsule further and remove the science canister and transport it separately, or collect the entire capsule in the shape it's in now and ferry it back by helicopter," Sevilla said.
|UPDATE, 10:37 p.m. ET: The science canister from the Genesis spacecraft has been transported by helicopter to a holding area next to a specially constructed clean room on the nearby Army base, according to a NASA statement late today. A foil wrapping will be removed from the canister and dirt will be brushed off before the canister is moved into a clean room for analysis of the contents.
SPACE.com has learned that helicopters will fly to the crash site tonight. Officials will remove the science canisters from inside the probe and bring them back to a clean room at the Utah desert facility, where scientists can begin to figure out what they have to work with.
Mission planners had considered the possibility that the Genesis capsule might crash to Earth, not slowed down by its parachute system, Sevilla pointed out. "This is a contingency plan already developed...already written up and, unfortunately, we are having to walk through it."
Sevilla said the breach of the sample canister brings up a more than normal care-in-handling issue. "We want to maintain our precious cargo...the collectors that have been returned to Earth."
Link to Stardust?
One irksome aspect to the Genesis capsule problem is a possible link to the NASA Stardust mission. It too is a Discovery-class probe: A cheaper, better, faster design of a spacecraft.
In January 2006, NASA's Stardust's return canister of comet and interstellar particles is to parachute into the Utah Test and Training Range.
"While the entry systems are not identical they do have a common design approach. Many of the materials and philosophies for redundancy are common to Genesis. It's vitally important that we understand the most probable root cause of this landing failure," said Chris Jones, Director for Solar System Exploration at JPL.
Wait and see
Despite the hard landing of the Genesis canister, officials involved with the project were hopeful that science data might be obtained from the wreckage.
"We're not going to lose the atoms. They're not going to come out of the collectors. Will assess the situation and decide what to do next," said Carlton Allen, Astromaterials Curator at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. "We may well have lost the information about which array the particular shard corresponds to. But all the ions are still there," Allen told SPACE.com.
Jim Crocker, Vice President of Lockheed Martin's civil space work that includes building and operating the Genesis spacecraft, said that science might be retrievable from the battered capsule.
"It's possible. We'll have to wait and see. We have to start looking and figure out what happened. It appeared that the capsule was tumbling. We had contingencies if we had a hard landing. There are ways to recover some of the science. But we really have to see what the state of the samples are," Crocker said.
One light-hearted quip from a scientist witnessing the Genesis crash landing: "It looks like we've already started the Genesis sample distribution process...not quite in the way that we had envisioned, but we'll deal with it."
Get the Space.com Newsletter
Breaking space news, the latest updates on rocket launches, skywatching events and more!
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.