Solar mission plans end of July flight


To add to its stash of moon rocks, NASA is hoping to steal a little sunshine.

In one of the most unique missions plotted by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration in recent years, a robotic space explorer known as Genesis, scheduled for launch July 30, will try to capture samples of solar wind.

Genesis will be blasted into space from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center aboard a Boeing Delta II rocket.

In October 2001, after a three month, 1.5-million-kilometer (930,000-mile) journey, the robot will try to collect as much as 20 micrograms of the wind composed of the invisible charged particles expelled by the Sun.

Then, the robot, laden with particles weighing about as much as a few grains of salt, will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in high, James Bond style — it will deploy a parachute and be recovered in flight by a specially-trained helicopter crew.

These smidgens of the sun will be preserved in a special laboratory where scientists hope to answer fundamental questions about the exact composition of the sun and the birth of the solar system.

“Genesis will return a small but precious amount of data crucial to our knowledge of the Sun and the formation of our solar system,” said Genesis mission leader Donald Burnett, of the California Institute of Technology.

“Data from Genesis will provide critical pieces for theories about the birth of the Sun and planets,” he said.

Built by Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft carries four scientific instruments, including bicycle tire-sized solar wind collector arrays made of diamond, gold silicone or sapphire that are designed to catch solar wind particles.

Also onboard are an ion monitor, recording solar wind speed, density, temperature and composition; an electron monitor, measuring similar details of the wind’s electrons; and an ion concentrator to distinguish the wind’s individual chemical elements, such as oxygen and nitrogen.

The mission, with a price tag of nearly US$209 million, could give researchers another chance to solve the mystery of the solar nebula, from which the nine planets were formed.

Scientists believe the surface of the Sun has preserved the composition of the nebula, so studying solar wind samples collected by Genesis could provide clues to the evolutionary process that has led to the enormous environmental diversity across the solar system.

“This mission will be the Rosetta Stone of planetary science data, because it will show us the foundation by which we can judge how our solar system evolved,” said Chester Sasaki, Genesis project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“The samples that Genesis returns will show us the composition of the original solar nebula that formed the planets, asteroids, comets and the Sun we know today,” he added.