NASA just shared an image of a crashed

NASA genesis spacecraft capsule
Genesis spacecraft is displayed for the media at the Kennedy
Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida June 13, 2001. The NASA
spacecraft, scheduled for launch July 30 aboard a Delta II
rocket, is expected to fly one million miles from the earth to
gather and return samples of solar wind.

Joe Skipper/Reuters

  • NASA shared an “Astronomy Picture of the Day” with a caption
    jokingly describing a “flying saucer” that crashed into the Utah
  • The image is actually of a Genesis spacecraft return capsule
    that crashed in 2004.
  • Genesis was part of a NASA mission to collect solar wind
    samples, which researchers wanted to study for more information
    on the sun’s elemental composition.
  • The capsule’s parachutes didn’t deploy upon re-entering the
    Earth’s atmosphere, so it crashed into the Utah desert at 193
  • Luckily, researchers were able to salvage some solar
    materials that survived the capsule crash.

Any species reaching for the stars is bound to have its
fingertips singed. Probably more than once.

One of NASA’s latest posts on the Astronomy Picture of the Day
website is an iconic reminder of the mishaps in our spacefaring

“A flying saucer from outer space crash-landed in the Utah desert
after being tracked by radar and chased by
helicopters,” states
the photo description
, although NASA is not hinting at an
alien visit here.

The banged-up dish, half-buried in the desert sand, was actually
the return capsule of the Genesis spacecraft. And it wasn’t
supposed to touch down in such a brutal way.

NASA genesis spacecraft capsule
The image was titled
“Flying Saucer Crash Lands in Utah Desert.”

388th Range Sqd., Genesis Mission, NASA

Launched on 8 August 2001, the Genesis mission was the space
agency’s ambitious effort to send a spacecraft into our home
star’s solar
, gather samples, and return them 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

To bring us solar wind samples, the Genesis craft was equipped
with a sample return capsule holding a canister of solar wind
materials, gathered when the craft spent two
 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.

Delta II rocket genesis spacecraft NASA
hoped the spacecraft’s capsules could gather solar wind


“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).

nasa genesis spacecraft artist rendering
Artist rendering of the
spacecraft with its arrays folded out.


What was supposed to happen was
rather different – 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.

In the crash photo, you can see helicopters – they
were hovering nearby, ready to snag the capsule mid-air and ferry
it directly to a cleanroom to avoid contamination of the samples.

Neither of those parachutes deployed.

nasa genesis spacecraft crash
frame grab image showing the return capsule from NASA’s Genesis
spacecraft mission.


After a thorough investigation, the error was traced back to
a set of sensors, barely the size of the metallic end of a
pencil. They had been installed backwards.

These tiny devices were supposed to detect the increasing
g-forces as the capsule plummeted towards the ground, and 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

Once the sample capsule was retrieved from the heart-sinking site
of its demise, the project team set about to
 anything that could still be
recovered and studied.

nasa genesis spacecraft recovery
One of the Genesis team,
Karen McNamara, inspects the damage on the


Thankfully, the Genesis mission wasn’t completely ruined, even
after such a dramatic arrival of the sample capsule. Some of the
sturdy collector materials survived, and researchers managed to
clean the surfaces without disturbing the solar
 embedded within.

Within three years, a series of papers were
published on the Genesis findings. Thanks to the daring mission,
we learned unprecedented details about the
composition of the Sun and the elemental
 between our star and the inner
planets of the Solar System.

“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,”
Genesis principal investigator Don Burnett from California
Institute of Technology said in 2011.

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


 INSIDER’s homepage


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