The Big Bang?

No, the Big Kerplunk

* A U.S. space capsule returning to Earth with clues about the origin of the solar system crashed in a Utah desert yesterday. The 420-pound Genesis capsule plunged into the ground at an estimated 100 miles per hour after its parachutes failed to open.

Scientists, who had feared that even a soft landing might harm the capsule's fragile cargo, had arranged for Hollywood stunt pilots in helicopters to try to snag Genesis with a hook as it descended and then gently deliver it to the ground. Instead, the capsule tumbled out of control as it plummeted.

It wasn't immediately known whether the precious particles of solar dust on board were lost.

"There was a big pit in my stomach," said physicist Roger Wiens, who worked on the project. "This just wasn't supposed to happen. We're going to have a lot of work picking up the pieces."

Genesis had been exploring space for 37 months as part of a six-year, $260 million project. Scientists hoped the samples it had collected would yield clues about the origin of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

The particles, no bigger than a few grains of salt, were stored on five disks. Now scientists will go through the shattered pieces and try to put them back together again -- like Humpty Dumpty.

In Utah, the half-buried Genesis is checked out after its hard landing.