After Genesis crashed in Utah in 2004, researchers began salvaging the data that remained. Two years later, they're still at it.

Illustration by Chris Hope

To enter the storage vault at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, you can’t wear makeup or deodorant, or have smoked recently. Cigarette residue, says a masked and hooded gatekeeper, is released in the breath for six months.

These are only a few of the precautions being taken to safeguard a collection of atoms accumulated during the three-year Genesis space mission, a $265 million project designed to elucidate the finer points of our solar system’s birth. But the retrieval of the returning space capsule—which involved hiring Hollywood stunt pilots to snare the tire-size contraption as it descended to Earth on September 8, 2004—went spectacularly wrong. Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft’s builder, had installed the capsule’s four gravity sensors upside down; on the day of its return to Earth, the craft’s parachutes failed to open. As the helicopter pilots surveyed the morning sky over the US Army Dugway Proving Ground, the capsule collided with the State of Utah at 311 kph and scattered over 2 square kilometers of a muddy lake bed.

The mission was to collect particles from electrically charged solar winds—100,000-degree Celsius streams of plasma that blast from the sun’s corona at speeds ranging from 200 to more than 966 kilometers per second. Scientists believe the sun, unlike the planets and other bodies in the solar system, has barely changed since its formation 4.6 billion years ago. So the study of actual solar particles should give researchers a DNA-level understanding of the original nebula from which our solar system—and Earth itself—formed.

Instead, the capsule, which had housed a pristine array of collection plates, looked like road kill. Designed to gather particle samples, these plates and hundreds of foil sheets—made of 15 materials ranging from diamond to aluminum—shattered into about 15,000 salvageable pieces. Though despondent and frustrated, dozens of scientists at Caltech, JPL, and research institutes worldwide who had spent years on this project were committed to salvaging what data remained. As the project’s funding expires in September 2008, time was of the essence.

How to separate the Utah from the ions beneath depends on which element a researcher wants to find. “Dirt is on the surface [of the collector plates],” says Donald Burnett, a Caltech geochemistry professor and principal investigator for Genesis. “The solar particles are in them. The problem is, there is just not that much difference between the two…. It’s like 10,000ths the diameter of a human hair.”

Kunihiko Nishiizumi, a researcher from UC Berkeley, has it worse than most. Before he can even begin cleaning his foils, he must figure out a way to smooth the crumpled, brittle sheets without tearing them. As a test, Nishiizumi rigged some pieces of piano wire with tuning pegs and attached the wire to the ends of the foil. Every day, he turns the screw a little further to flatten the foil. “He’s having a horrible time,” admits Amy Jurewicz, the JPL project scientist. “I would have given up.”

Other team members have made faster progress. Stephen Sestak of the Open University in London built a machine to flow ozone into contaminated plates and ionize the gas with ultraviolet light. The oxygen eats away organic matter. The machine proved so successful that NASA now offers the cleaning service, in addition to an ultrasonic water bath, before a Genesis fragment is sent out for analysis.

Scientists have borrowed heavily from the semiconductor industry, testing dozens of acids and washes. “We’ve tried everything, even Windex,” Jurewicz quipped earlier this year at a science conference in Houston. She wasn’t kidding: One of the most effective products, the Genesis team discovered, is Micro90—commercial ammonia soap. “It’s a very expensive version of Windex,” Caltech’s Burnett says. “It’s not blue and it costs about 100 times more, but it works very well.”

The work has at last begun to pay off, and a few results are out—mostly about elements rare on Earth, like neon, which are less susceptible to the contamination. And the Genesis team is happily publishing results on its current research endeavor: cleanup technologies and engineering. Because of the crash, it could be 10 years before the secrets of the solar system are revealed and fully digested. At least in the meantime Genesis has avoided the fate of being just a $265 million pile of junk.

Originally published December 8, 2006

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