The $246-million mission to return pristine samples of the solar wind nearly ended as an unwanted experiment in carving craters in the Utah desert when its parachutes failed and the sample-return capsule burrowed into the desert floor last week. Now, after carefully inspecting the inside of the wrecked capsule with a flashlight and with a mirror at the end of a stick, the somber mood has shifted to guarded optimism. Enough of the samples were found intact that researchers say they are confident they can salvage most of the science objectives they set out to accomplish. "The science team is really excited," says Roger Wiens, one of the project's lead scientists. "We should be able to meet many, if not all, of our primary science goals." Launched in August 2001, the Genesis spacecraft was designed to orbit a point beyond the influence of Earth's magnetic field to gather samples of charged particles that constantly stream from the sun's outer atmosphere. Because the sun holds 99 percent of all the matter in the solar system, researchers believe that studying these particles will tell them a great deal about the composition of the cloud of dust and gas from which the sun and planets emerged some 4.6 billion years ago. By comparing the relative abundance of key elements in the solar wind with those found in the solar system today, researchers also say they may be able to better explain how the solar system emerged with such a wide variety of objects with varying compositions, informs the Christian Science Monitor. According to Houston Chronicle, experts will recover enough of the shattered Genesis spacecraft to study captured solar particles that hold clues about the early solar system, NASA said Friday, two days after the capsule crashed in the Utah desert. To do that, however, researchers still must determine the best ways to remove dirt and other contaminants from fragile plates that collected fragments of the sun. Since Wednesday's crash, experts have used flashlights and inserted small mirrors to inspect cracks in the capsule. Although they won't disassemble the capsule until at least this weekend, scientists think they have seen enough to know there is something to salvage. "Overall, we are quite confident we can still achieve a high degree of success from a scientific point of view," Roger Wiens, a Genesis science team member from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in a telephone news conference Friday. Many of the glass-like, pizza-sized plates holding sun particles shattered with Wednesday's near 200-mph impact. But the fragments that survived are large enough for scientists to work with if they can be cleaned. Ultimately, researchers will rehearse the decontamination procedure on replicas before they study the real solar wind samples at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said Don Burnett, the mission's lead scientist from the California Institute of Technology. Meanwhile, the space agency named Michael Ryschkewitsch, a physicist from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, to lead the investigation into the cause of the crash. A report is due in mid-November. top NASA official said Thursday that scientists examining the remains of the crashed Genesis space capsule have peeked inside a broken canister containing atoms from the sun and seen some intact collection plates, although others have probably been pureed to dust. "We have a mangled mess of a spacecraft," Genesis program scientist David Lindstrom said. "The canister came open, and some of its contents actually came out. We have been lucky in that it [landed] in dirt." Lindstrom said scientists working at a temporary clean room at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground were optimistic that "significant science" could eventually be recovered from the more than 250 ceramic collector tiles inside the canister, reports the Washington Post.
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