NASA's Genesis spacecraft crossed the orbit of the Moon early Monday, Sept. 6, on its way to the mission's dramatic finale over the skies of west-central Utah tomorrow. Genesis, bringing back samples of the solar wind, is NASA's first sample return mission since Apollo 17 returned the last of America's lunar samples to Earth in December 1972.
An important milestone in the mission was met Monday morning, when the Genesis spacecraft performed its final trajectory maneuver before capsule release and the dramatic midair capture over Utah. The spacecraft passed the Earth-Moon orbit at about 2 a.m. Pacific Time on Monday, traveling at about 1.25 kilometers per second (2,700 miles per hour).
"Our Deep Space Network is allowing us to keep a close eye on our spacecraft and its samples of the Sun," said Genesis project manager Don Sweetnam of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "It is right where we planned it to be. Everything is go. The navigators and engineers here at JPL are go, and the recovery team out in Utah is go, too."
The Genesis recovery team members, both ground support and the flight crews who will make the dramatic midair capture, have been undergoing flight training since arriving at the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah, on Aug. 23.
"We came here with a specific set of mission goals that had to be met before Sept. 8, and those have all been met or exceeded," said Genesis director of flight operations Roy Haggard of Vertigo Inc., Lake Elsinore, Calif. "The next time these two helicopters take to the sky one of them will be landing with a spacecraft hooked to its belly."
The Genesis sample return capsule will enter Earth's atmosphere at 8:55 a.m. Pacific Time over Oregon. Two minutes and one time zone later, the capsule will deploy its drogue parachute at 33 kilometers (108,000 feet) over the vast alkali flats and sagebrush of the U.S. Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range. Waiting 29.5 kilometers (97,000 feet) below will be two helicopters and crew bearing the space-age equivalent of a fisherman's rod-and-reel, ready to catch some Sun.
"From the time the drogue deploys it will take about 18 minutes for the capsule to reach a height where we can get to it," said Genesis prime pilot Cliff Fleming of South Coast Helicopters, Santa Ana, Calif. "When we are up there that may feel like a long 18 minutes but we have been training for this moment since 1999, so in the grand scheme of things another quarter-hour or so shouldn't matter much."
The Genesis mission was launched in August 2001 on a journey to capture samples from the storehouse of 99 percent of all the material in our solar system -- the Sun. The samples of solar wind particles, collected on ultra-pure wafers of gold, sapphire, silicon and diamond, will be returned for analysis by Earth-bound scientists. The samples Genesis provides will supply scientists with vital information on the composition of the Sun, and will shed light on the origins of our solar system.
The Genesis events will be carried live on NASA Television Sept. 8 and will be webcast live at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/webcast/genesis/ .
JPL manages the Genesis mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, developed and operates the spacecraft. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology.
For more information about Genesis on the Internet, visit http://genesismission.jpl.nasa.gov/.
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