On September 8, a 420-pound capsule will plunge meteorlike into the upper atmosphere at more than 6 miles a second. A large parachute will then slow it down to a gentle 10 miles an hour. Finally, to keep the delicate ceramic plates securing the 10-microgram cargo inside from breaking on landing, a helicopter flown by Hollywood stunt pilots will hook the craft midair by its parafoil and lower it gently to the desert floor in Utah.
What cargo gets such royal reentry treatment? No less than rare samples collected from the sun–and the first extraterrestrial shipment brought to Earth since 1976. For the past three years NASA’s robotic Genesis spacecraft has been in orbit 930,000 miles from Earth, catching billions of atoms and ions from solar wind. “The solar particles are in the same chemical proportions as the original solar nebula,” says Genesis‘s principal investigator and geochemist, Don Burnett, referring to the primordial cloud of dust and gas that birthed the solar system some five billion years ago. Scientists say the particle samples will help them better grasp how planets and other celestial objects formed.
What happens to the $260-million mission if the test pilot botches the retrieval? “We never miss,” insists Roy Haggard of Vertigo, the company coordinating the midair capture. But just in case, Haggard will employ a backup helicopter. With more than 5,000 feet of descent to play with, each pilot will have the opportunity to take several swipes at the capsule before it hits dirt.
Once the team safely delivers the Genesis canister to
the ground, it will be spirited from the Utah desert to the Johnson Space Center in Houston. There, in a special clean room one floor below NASA’s half ton of moon collected during the 1972 Apollo missions, amazed planetary geologists will open their 10 micrograms of sun and begin unraveling
the mysteries of planetary