SALT LAKE CITY – NASA scientists said Friday they had recovered some intact materials from the wreckage of the Genesis space capsule (search) that crashed this week and were hopeful that the mission to gather solar atoms could be salvaged.
"We should be able to meet many, if not all, of our science goals," said physicist Roger C. Wiens of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (search).
The capsule, launched into space in 2001, crashed while returning to Earth on Wednesday, slamming into the ground at nearly 200 mph after parachutes failed to open. It cracked open like a clamshell, and left an inner canister containing the disks badly damaged.
Some 350 palm-sized wafers made up five disks that were open to the solar wind during the mission, collecting atoms from the sun. Scientists had feared the wafers shattered like glass in the crash, and many of them did. But they were surprised to find some fully intact, and were characterizing it as good news.
"We want to try to get out as much of those (wafers) as we can," Wiens said.
Those platters were packed so tightly in the wreckage of the crash, it took scientists more than a day to pry them apart and inspect the precious cargo. The capsule held billions of charged atoms — a total haul no bigger than a few grains of salt. The particles could explain how the sun formed 4.5 billion years ago and what keeps it fueled.
NASA planned to appoint a board to determine the cause of the failure. Flight engineers said a set of tiny explosives did not trigger the capsule's parachutes, although the fact that all the explosives failed pointed to another cause.
Robert Corwin, an engineer for Lockheed Martin Space Systems (search), which designed and built the craft, said a battery that overheated shortly after the 2001 launch could be a culprit. He also was looking at a possible malfunction of the electronics or sensors controlling the parachutes.
Helicopters flown by Hollywood stunt pilots were supposed to grab Genesis' parachute with a hook almost a mile above the desert and lower the capsule gently to the ground. But they never had a chance to grab the speeding capsule.
"We had a mangled mess," said NASA program scientist David Lindstrom.
Scientists have been peering inside the capsule with flashlights and mirrors, finding intact parts. The scientists are now working to get inside the wreckage and pull out the internal canister holding the wafers.
"We're going to be doing some sawing and some snipping" Saturday and Monday, said Don Sevilla, Genesis payload manager for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (search). The scientists have been collecting tools for the job.
Scientists won't touch the most sensitive parts of the inner capsule until they can determine how to clean them without wiping away precious atoms. "This is something that's going to take months," Sevilla said.
The mishap raised questions about the durability of another NASA sample-return capsule called Stardust, due to land at Dugway in 2006. But that capsule was built to be more rugged and will land on its own with a parachute, instead of the daring midair catch planned for Genesis.