In NASA's ideal scenario for cleaning the science payload containing solar particles from the Genesis capsule, the biggest worry had been about contamination from gases in the atmosphere, not from dirt in Utah's west desert.
But a 200 mph crash-landing into the U.S. Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range on Wednesday left Genesis personnel with a muddy mess. The $264 million mission's probe, which had spent three years collecting pieces of the sun for scientific study, sat half-buried in a salt flat. Helicopter pilots were supposed to catch in midair the capsule's parafoil, which is like a parachute. But the chute failed to open.
"We have a mangled mess of a spacecraft," said David Lindstrom, Genesis program scientist for NASA, during a news briefing Thursday from Dugway Proving Ground.
Thursday, crews had dug out the 450-pound capsule and its science payload. The science canister is in a temporary clean room at Dugway to protect the solar particles from contamination from atmospheric gases and other Earth material. The particles pose no danger to people.
The crash created a 6-inch-wide gash in the science payload container, Lindstrom said. Peaking through that gap, researchers have started to assess the damage. Collector plates, made up of small hexagonal tiles, spent 29 months exposed to solar wind. Particles of the sun, carried off in solar wind, embedded themselves in the collector material.
The impact ejected some pieces of that science payload out of the capsule and into the dirt, but Lindstrom said the gash revealed that at least some hexagonal pieces are intact.
"I think it's fairly safe to say the shattered pieces are dust, which are of course lost," he said.
But scientists remain optimistic that the larger fragments of tile still hold their atom-sized targets. They had hoped to capture a "billion-billion" atoms of solar particles.
Lindstrom said crews will have to carefully brush, vacuum and pick off any dirt from the fragile collector plates, which are made of high-purity materials such as silicon, sapphire and gold.
To collect the purest possible particles of the sun, the Genesis spacecraft traveled to a point where the gravities of the sun and the Earth are balanced. The point was also far enough away from the Earth's magnetic field, which can alter solar particles.
When asked whether this accident might cause NASA to rethink its "faster, better, cheaper" philosophy for science missions, Lindstrom downplayed that criticism. He said Genesis was carefully planned and well executed except for the final moments.
"There's no need for soul-searching," he said.
As for the Genesis crash, NASA is in the process of trying to determine what went wrong and has created a Mishap Investigation Board. The group could reach a conclusion as soon as three months.
For now, researchers are gauging the scientific damage before deciding when to send the remaining samples to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The Test and Training Range near Dugway will be the site of a similar NASA probe mission return in January 2006. The Stardust mission, designed to catch comet debris, will rely on a parachute landing in the west desert.
"There are some similarities in the mission," Lindstrom said,
One reason that Utah's west desert is the landing site for these return missions is that the Test and Training Range is a vast, open area with a controlled airspace. Even if the landing is not perfect, researchers know that the probes will land in an unpopulated area near the target site.