DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah -- The Genesis space capsule, which had orbited the sun for more than three years in an attempt to gather clues to the origin of the solar system, crashed to Earth on Wednesday after its parachute failed to deploy.
It wasn't immediately known whether tiny cosmic samples it was carrying back to Earth as part of a six-year, $260 million project had been lost. NASA officials believed the fragile disks that held the atoms would shatter even if the capsule hit the ground with a parachute.
"There was a big pit in my stomach," said physicist Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, which designed the atom collector plates. "This just wasn't supposed to happen. We're going to have a lot of work picking up the pieces."
A recovery team that includes Genesis project members was dispatched to the crash site Wednesday afternoon on a salvage mission.
Hollywood stunt pilots had taken off in helicopters to hook the parachute, but the refrigerator-sized capsule - holding a set of fragile disks containing billions of atoms collected from solar wind - hit the desert floor without the parachute opening.
The impact drove the capsule halfway underground. NASA engineers feared the explosive for the parachute might still be alive and ready to fire, keeping helicopter crews at bay.
"That presents a safety hazard to recovery crews," said Chris Jones, solar system exploration director for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The copters were supposed to snatch the capsule's parachute with a hook as it floated down at 400 feet a minute, or more than 6 feet per second. But the capsule tumbled out of control. It was supposed to be spinning at 15 revolutions a minute to slice evenly through the atmosphere, but camera images showed it tumbling instead.
The solar wind is a stream of highly charged particles that are emitted by the sun. Scientists hoped the charged atoms gathered in the capsule - a "billion billion" of them - would reveal clues about the origin and evolution of our solar system, said Don Burnett, Genesis' principal investigator and a nuclear geochemist at California Institute of Technology.
"We have for years wanted to know the composition of the sun," Burnett said before the crash. He said scientists had expected to analyze the material "one atom at a time."
Cliff Fleming, the lead helicopter pilot, and backup pilot Dan Rudert had replicated the retrieval in dozens of practice runs. Fleming and Rudert, stunt pilots by trade, were drafted for the mission because of their expertise flying high and capturing objects. Fleming has swooped after sky surfers in the action movie "XXX" and towed actor Pierce Brosnan through the air in "Dante's Peak." He just worked on "Batman 4."
The Genesis mission, launched in 2001, marked the first time NASA has collected any objects from farther than the moon for retrieval to Earth, said Roy Haggard, Genesis' flight operations chief and CEO of Vertigo Inc., which designed the capture system.
Together, the charged atoms captured over 884 days on the capsule's five disks of gold, sapphire, diamond and silicone were no bigger than a few grains of salt, but scientists say that would be enough to reconstruct the chemical origin of the sun and its family of planets.
Wiens said the five disks were of different thicknesses, which could make it easier for scientists to sort out shattered remnants and put pieces back together like a puzzle.
Scientists had expected to study the material for five more years.
The Genesis crash raises new durability questions for another NASA sample-return mission - Stardust.
Launched in 1999, the small spacecraft captured the dust of a comet in January and is scheduled to return in January 2006.
There is no plan for helicopter stunt pilots to snag that capsule from the sky. An automatic parachute system is supposed to deploy, and, in NASA's words, "set the capsule gently onto the salt flats of the Utah desert for retrieval."
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