Researcher Recovers Samples From Crashed Space Capsule

Researcher Recovers Samples From Crashed Space Capsule

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A Washington University researcher has extracted samples of solar wind from the crashed Genesis space capsule.

Disks in the Genesis capsule captured atoms and ions of the solar wind during nearly three years in space. On its Sept. 8 return, it was supposed to parachute gently toward Utah's western desert, but be snagged by a helicopter before it touched down.

Instead, the capsule's parachutes failed to deploy, it hit the muddy ground at 193 mph and it cracked open, breaking the canister holding the collector plates.

NASA retrieved the samples and began distributing them to scientists in January.

The first went to Washington University in St. Louis, where Alex Meshik, a senior research scientist in the physics department, found that although the collector was bent, it retained its precious solar material.

Collector plates were manufactured with different thicknesses, enabling the researchers to which plates were exposed to the sun during solar flares or at other times.

"After this not-soft landing, we can just measure the thickness, and we can tell right away what collector they came from," Meshik said.

When he watched the descent on TV, "of course it was shocking," he told the Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City. But when he saw the materials, "I was surprised what good shape they are in."

Meshik places fragments of collector plates in a vacuum and vaporizes the surface of the plate with a laser. That releases the noble gases captured from the sun: helium, neon, argon, krypton and xenon. The gases are then analyzed in a mass spectrometer.

In a test measurement, a lot of solar material came out, he said.

"We do have some problems. The first problem is some contamination. There was small residual from the water drops on the surface, and these potentially can, a little bit, oxidize the aluminum."

The trouble won't be in identifying material from the sun but in knowing how much was gathered per unit of surface area. Some will not show up on scientific instruments because oxidation obliterated it.

"We'll simply analyze the contaminated areas and clean areas and compare what comes out," Meshik said.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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