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NASA Photo Shows The Wreckage of a ‘Flying Saucer’, But Here Is The Twist

Any species trying to reach for the stars is bound to have its fingertips singed. One of NASA’s posts on the Astronomy Picture of the Day website is a gentle reminder of the mishaps that can and have occured in our spacefaring history.

“A flying saucer from outer space crash-landed in the Utah desert after being tracked by radar and chased by helicopters,” as stated by the photo description.
The wreckage was actually the return capsule of the Genesis spacecraft. And it wasn’t supposed to touch down in such a brutal way. The spacecraft was launched on 8 August 2001, and it’s purpose was to gather samples from the sun’s solar wind and then return these samples safely to Earth.
By gathering data on the composition of the charged particles streaming from the Sun’s corona, researchers hoped to precisely determine the composition of the star, and learn more about the elements that were around when the Solar System’s planets were formed. To succeed in it’s mission, the Genesis craft was equipped with a sample return capsule holding a canister of solar wind materials, gathered when the craft spent two years orbiting Lagrange point 1 – one of the spots in space where the gravity from Earth and Sun are precisely balanced.
The craft captured the solar wind by folding out a series of collector arrays, each loaded with high-purity materials such as aluminium, sapphire, silicon, and even gold.

Artist rendering of the spacecraft with its arrays folded out (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist rendering of the spacecraft with its arrays folded out (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“The materials we used in the Genesis collector arrays had to be physically strong enough to be launched without breaking; retain the sample while being heated by the Sun during collection; and be pure enough that we could analyse the solar wind elements after Earth-return,” project scientist Amy Jurewicz explained on 3 September 2004.
Five days later, that sample capsule and its precious arrays smashed into the ground in Utah, at an estimated speed of 310 km/h (193 mph).

What went wrong?

Ideally, 127 seconds after re-entering the atmosphere, a mortar aboard the capsule would blow, releasing a preliminary parachute for slowing and stabilising the descent. Then, a main parachute was to inflate, providing the capsule with a gentle descent into the Utah Test and Training Range. However, a set of sensors which were supposed to detect the increasing g-forces were found to have been installed wrongly. These sensors, which are barely the size of the metallic end of a pencil were meant to trigger the deployment of the parachutes. As you can imagine, the crash led to severe damage, breaking several of the arrays and contaminating the precious cargo within. Once the sample capsule was retrieved from the heart-sinking site of its demise, the project team set about to retrieve anything that could still be recovered and studied.

Thankfully, the Genesis mission wasn’t completely ruined by the crash. Some of the sturdy sample collectors survived the crash and researchers managed to clean the surfaces without disturbing the solar material embedded within.


One of the Genesis team, Karen McNamara, inspects the damage on the capsule (NASA)

In a 2011 interview, the Genesis Principal, Don Burnett investigator had this to say, “The Sun houses more than 99 percent of the material currently in our Solar System, so it’s a good idea to get to know it better.”

“While it was more challenging than expected, we have answered some important questions, and like all successful missions, generated plenty more.”

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