NASA Shows The Mysterious Wreck of a ‘Flying Saucer’

Any species aiming for the stars will undoubtedly burn its fingertips. Probably several times.

One of NASA’s most recent updates on the Astronomy Picture of the Day website is a memorable reminder of our spacefaring history’s blunders.

The photo caption reads, “A flying saucer from outer space crash-landed in the Utah desert after being followed by radar and chased by helicopters,” however NASA makes no mention of an alien encounter.

The battered dish, half-buried in the desert sand, was really the Genesis spacecraft’s return capsule. And it wasn’t intended to crash into the ground with such force.

The Genesis project, which was launched on August 8, 2001, was NASA’s ambitious attempt to send a spacecraft into our home star’s solar wind, collect samples, and return them to Earth.

Researchers intended to learn more about the elements present when the Solar System’s planets originated by collecting data on the composition of charged particles pouring from the Sun’s corona.

The Genesis spacecraft was equipped with a sample return capsule that held a canister of solar wind elements collected during the craft’s two-year orbit around Lagrange point 1, one of the few places in space where the gravity of the Earth and the Sun is perfectly balanced.

The vessel collected the solar wind by folding out a series of collector arrays, each of which was laden with high-purity elements including aluminum, sapphire, silicon, and even gold.

On September 3, 2004, project scientist Amy Jurewicz explained, “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 analyze the solar wind elements after Earth-return.”

That sample capsule and its priceless arrays blasted into the earth in Utah five days later, at a speed of 310 km/h (193 mph).

What was scheduled to happen was that a mortar aboard the capsule would blow 127 seconds after re-entering the atmosphere, deploying a preliminary parachute to slow and stabilize the drop.

The capsule’s primary parachute would next fill, allowing for a leisurely drop into the Utah Test and Training Range.

Helicopters can be seen hovering close in the crash scene, preparing to catch the capsule mid-flight and transport it quickly to a cleanroom to minimize contamination of the materials.

None of the parachutes were deployed.

The inaccuracy was tracked down to a collection of sensors the size of the metallic end of a pencil after a comprehensive analysis. They’d been put in backward.

As the capsule dropped towards the ground, these small gadgets were designed to sense the growing g-forces and trigger the deployment of the parachutes.

As you can expect, the impact caused significant damage, destroying numerous arrays and contaminating the valuable payload within.

The project team set out to collect whatever that might still be salvaged and analyzed after the sample capsule was retrieved from the heart-sinking place of its end.

Thankfully, even with such a spectacular arrival of the sample capsule, the Genesis expedition was not utterly damaged. Some of the durable collecting materials made it through, and researchers were able to clean the surfaces without disrupting the solar material contained within.

A succession of articles on the Genesis discoveries was published within three years. We obtained new insights about the Sun’s composition and the elemental variations between our star and the Solar System’s inner planets thanks to the risky expedition.

In 2011, Genesis principle investigator Don Burnett of California Institute of Technology remarked, “The Sun holds more than 99 percent of the stuff now in our Solar System, therefore it’s a good idea to get to know it better.”

“While it was more difficult than imagined, we were able to answer some crucial questions and, like all successful missions, we were able to create a slew of new ones.”

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