New success for troubled NASA Genesis mission
June 28th, 2011 @ 12:30pm
By David Self Newlin
SALT LAKE CITY -- In September of 2004, a $264 million hunk of metal, silicon and diamond smashed into the earth after traveling safely to and from the sun for almost 900 days. Despite coming closer to our star than anything since Icarus, NASA's Genesis mission had ended in what appeared to be failure.
However, it now looks as though not everything was lost in the pile of rubble recovered from the Utah desert. After analyzing what remained of the probe, scientists think they have discovered some important new information about how our solar system was born.
Examining ratios of oxygen and nitrogen isotopes have led scientists to propose that the something altered the formation of the solar system after the sun developed, but before the other planets.
"These findings show that all solar system objects including the terrestrial planets, meteorites and comets are anomalous compared to the initial composition of the nebula from which the solar system formed," said Bernard Marty, a scientist studying the remaining samples, in a press conference.
It has been known since the 1970's that isotope ratios were different for solar and no-solar material, but more data needs to be obtained in order to better understand what had happened in the formation of the solar system.
This was the purpose of the Genesis mission, which gathered samples of solar winds cast by the sun in a kind of space-themed archaeology.
Solar winds can be thought of like fossil remains of the nebula from which the sun formed. The ratio of certain elements stays consistent on the surface of the sun for billions of years. Solar winds, then, are the closest we can get to seeing the solar system before there was a solar system to see.
Scientists at UCLA and the Centre de Recherches Petrographiques et Geochimiques in Nancy, France have spent the years after the crash assiduously cleaning the contaminated remains pulled from the innards of the Genesis probe.
While some of the ultra-pure silicon, aluminum, gold, and diamond coated detectors were destroyed on impact, more than enough remained to obtain some results, and the results could keep coming, even after all this time.
"In my terms, we had a list of 18 measurements of things we wanted to do, and we've done about five of them," said Don Burnett of Caltech, principal investigator for the Genesis mission, in a press conference. "My bar is pretty high, and I'm not going to rest."