A top NASA official said Thursday that scientists examining the remains of the crashed Genesis space capsule have peeked inside a broken canister containing atoms from the sun and seen some intact collection plates, although others have probably been pureed to dust.
"We have a mangled mess of a spacecraft," Genesis program scientist David Lindstrom said. "The canister came open, and some of its contents actually came out. We have been lucky in that it [landed] in dirt."
Lindstrom said scientists working at a temporary clean room at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground were optimistic that "significant science" could eventually be recovered from the more than 250 ceramic collector tiles inside the canister.
"This sample return was intended to be a reservoir of solar material for study for several decades," Lindstrom said. "There are several square meters of these materials [inside the canister], and the kind of instruments that will study them require only square millimeters. We are very confident."
Lindstrom, speaking to reporters in a telephone news conference from Dugway, said both the canister and the capsule that held it will travel overland to special facilities at Houston's Johnson Space Center "in some number of days . . . there is no urgency."
The 450-pound, discus-shaped Genesis capsule, traveling 193 mph, crashed edge-first into Dugway's high desert Wednesday morning after its parachutes failed to open.
The cargo canister contained five large plates, with 55 four-inch hexagonal tiles embedded in each one. The arrays had been exposed for 850 days during the three-year mission to collect atoms from the solar wind.
Those particles -- a few micrograms of matter in all -- are thought to represent all the elements and isotopes in the periodic table in a mix that duplicates the composition of the solar system when it formed 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists said it would provide a benchmark for assessing how the solar system's evolved.
But instead of returning an uncontaminated, unbroken canister, which was designed to parachute toward Earth so helicopter stunt pilots could pluck it gently from the sky, the spacecraft dived into the desert in a catastrophic crash.
"The canister has been ripped open, and there is a six-inch gap between the top and bottom," Lindstrom said. "The spacecraft is on one edge so that one major part of the cylindrical sample container was severely crushed. The other side was undamaged."
Lindstrom said experts were cleaning the outside of the canister and had not yet opened it but had peeked through the breach, and "we believe we can see full hexagons." He acknowledged, however, that "the minimum size is probably dust."
The canister arrived at the Dugway clean room aboard an Army Black Hawk helicopter late Wednesday. A truck trundled in later with the remains of the capsule shell, destined for investigation by a NASA "incident board."
While the immediate cause of the crash was the parachutes' failure to deploy, the reason why that happened were far from clear. Sensors on the spacecraft were supposed to trigger small explosives to begin the parachute deployment.
Lindstrom acknowledged that the triggering batteries had overheated during the mission but said engineers had tested similar batteries on Earth at temperatures higher than those on the spacecraft without incident.