Researchers are assessing data captured by ground and airborne science gear during the hypervelocity reentry of the Genesis sample return capsule. That information may provide some clues as to why the capsule made a destructive crash landing in Utah desert.
The capsule's parachute recovery system failed to deploy due to a still-unknown cause. The Genesis hardware plowed into the Utah Test and Training Range at nearly 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour).
The sample capsule held precious cargo -- a stockpile of solar wind specimens, embedded in fragile collector arrays. Genesis specialists remain at the Utah site, sifting through spacecraft wreckage to recoup meaningful science following the crash.
FISTA full of data
Nearly two dozen researchers flying onboard the U.S. Air Force's Flying Infrared Signatures Technologies Aircraft (FISTA) got a front row seat on September 8 to the Genesis sample return capsule's fiery reentry.
The reentering Genesis hardware was observed by airborne researchers from a location just west of the Utah Test and Training Range and at an altitude of 39,000 feet (11,900 meters). All instruments were reportedly operational and ready for the observations.
"The reentry looked like a point of light with no visible wake, a bright star falling gracefully down to Earth," notes a website dedicated to the Genesis observations. Part of the reentry track was recorded in optical as well as various infrared wavelengths that can capture the heat loads experienced by the incoming, human-made fireball.
FISTA is operated by the U.S. Air Force 412 Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base, Edwards, California. During the decent, the aircraft maintained a safe distance from the capsule's trajectory.
FISTA is a specially adapted NKC-135 Stratotanker previously used as an aerial laboratory for the observation of the Leonid meteor storms. The aircraft was further modified to observe the Genesis hardware screaming through the atmosphere. New observational windows were added, along with power units and antenna systems tied to the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation.
Higher trajectory than expected
Experts from NASA Ames Research Center, located in California's Silicon Valley, and the SETI Institute, Mountain View, California, took part in observing the "artificial" meteor. Principal investigator and meteor astronomer Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute lead the diverse and independent science team.
The Genesis return capsule's trajectory was slightly different than originally calculated, according to the SETI Institute's Jenniskens, a meteor astronomer.
"The tracking was a little difficult because the craft came in a little higher than expected, but we were able to get the data we wanted," Jenniskens told a reporter for the Air Force Print New Today.
Observers on the ground recorded the incoming projectile as it streaked through the Earth's atmosphere. The capsule experienced peak heating conditions as it decelerated near the Oregon/Nevada border en route to Utah.
The Genesis reentry data should be valuable to meteor specialists since the sample container is an analog to meter-sized asteroids that deposit organic material in Earth's atmosphere. Furthermore, the aerial observation campaign was funded by the NASA Engineering and Safety Center in Hampton, Virginia as a means to better understand the phenomena of high-speed entry of return capsules.
Sandia National Laboratory experts used equipment to observe the capsule's moment of peak heating and the instant the hardware felt the strongest deceleration. "This data may prove of value in the investigation why the Genesis parachutes did not open as expected," explains the Genesis observational website.
Although the reentering capsule was quite bright against the deep blue sky at altitude, it was hard to observe from the ground. Initial reports from ground teams indicate that the reentry was not seen visually against the bright daytime sky, but was recorded by video cameras.
A NASA Marshall Space Flight Center team recorded the Genesis reentry on four cameras spanning a 100 degree field of view above their northern Nevada observing location.
A sonic boom was heard at all participating ground stations. An infrasound record of the capsule cutting through the atmosphere was acquired by a Los Alamos National Laboratory group operating at Wendover, Nevada airport, situated near the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah's west desert.
Other scientists report success in optically tracking the incoming Genesis sample return capsule. Data was collected and is being analyzed in the hope of calibrating techniques used in watching for near-Earth objects, such as worrisome asteroids.
"We do have a bunch of data to use in our attempts to discern how closely we 'predicted' the time and location of the impact," said Donald Yeomans, Supervisor of the Solar System Dynamics Group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "We'll
compare our after the fact predictions to asses the accuracy of our Near-Earth Object monitoring system," he told SPACE.com.
Meanwhile, the Genesis science canister remains at the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. Within a specially-fabricated clean room, the sample container's outer wall is being cut away by technicians in order to reach the solar wind samples inside.
At present, there are no concrete plans regarding the shipping date of the Genesis capsule or its contents from Dugway to NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, advised Bill Jeffs, a Genesis spokesman at JSC. "The plan is still to store the samples in the Genesis cleanroom" he said, within the building at JSC that houses in various labs collections of lunar samples, meteorites and cosmic dust - and eventually will house the Stardust samples that arrive from space in January 2006.
"I would expect that the Genesis Science Team will begin analyzing the first samples during October or November," Jeffs said.