NASA launches Genesis spacecraft on mission to gather particles of


Wednesday, August 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- After nine days of delay, a NASA
robotic explorer named Genesis rocketed away Wednesday on an
unprecedented mission to gather and return tiny particles of the
sun.
"I'm a very happy man right now," said the lead scientist, Don
Burnett, a geochemistry professor at the California Institute of
Technology. "I knew we were over the hill when I looked out the
window this morning and saw the sun shining."
Liftoff was scuttled five times last week by bad weather and
technical concerns.
With the weather finally cooperating, the unmanned Delta rocket
climbed through a partly cloudy midday sky and started Genesis on a
three-year, 20 million-mile, round-trip mission to shed light on
the origin of the solar system.
A concern arose late in the countdown over parts in Genesis that
are common to the Mars Odyssey spacecraft en route to the red
planet. But managers quickly resolved the issue and cleared Genesis
for launch.
A camera mounted on the ascending rocket beamed down stunning
views of the cloud-specked coast, growing ever smaller, and the
rocket pieces as they tumbled away as planned.
"I'm excited, but the real excitement comes in September 2004
for us," Burnett said.
That's when the solar samples will fly back in a capsule,
dropping by parachute and then parafoil over the Utah desert with a
helicopter making a dramatic midair catch.
Genesis will spend the next three months traveling to an
imaginary point 1 million miles from Earth and 92 million miles
from the sun. The spacecraft will make wide swoops around this spot
for 21/2 years, extending its round collector panels made of
ultra-pure silicon, diamond, sapphire, gold, aluminum and
germanium.
These materials will serve as high-tech flypaper, gathering
atoms from the solar wind hurtling by at more than 1 million mph.
The atoms will be the first extraterrestrial material returned
by NASA since Apollo 17's moonwalkers brought back one last bundle
of lunar rocks in December 1972.
This time, the prize will be considerably smaller. The desired
solar atoms, if all piled up, will be equivalent to perhaps 10
grains of salt. Scientists expect that to be enough for years and
even decades of analysis.
The solar samples will be stored at Johnson Space Center in
Houston in the same building that houses the moon rocks.
Genesis was supposed to lift off July 30, but was grounded after
a pair of power converters in the spacecraft became suspect.
Identical devices failed radiation testing in France, and NASA
wanted to make sure the ones aboard Genesis would withstand
radiation from solar flares during the flight. Then low clouds and
storms interfered, and then mission managers had to wait for an Air
Force Titan rocket to blast off Monday.
NASA squeezed in the Genesis launch just one day before space
shuttle Discovery's scheduled liftoff on a mission to deliver a
fresh crew to the international space station.
The $259 million Genesis mission is managed by the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. It is part of NASA's
Discovery program featuring low-cost robotic exploration.
Another Discovery spacecraft, Stardust, is going after comet
dust following a 1999 launch. The comet samples are due back in
2006.