NASA scientists said Friday that they have recovered intact some critical pieces of the Genesis space capsule and are optimistic that the wreckage will yield valuable information about the origins of the solar system.
"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.
The Genesis capsule spent 21/2 years gathering solar atoms. It crashed while returning to Earth on Wednesday, slamming into the ground at nearly 200 mph after its parachutes did not open. The capsule cracked open like a clamshell and badly damaged an inner canister containing disks that collected the atoms.
Scientists have been peering inside the canister with flashlights and mirrors. They had feared that the 350 palm-size wafers making up the disks would shatter like glass in the crash, and many did.
But they were surprised to find some wafers intact, meaning the $264 million mission may not have been a total loss.
Scientists have pulled out the mangled inner canister from the capsule and are working to pry the canister open all the way. The disks inside were jammed together by the impact of the crash and were so tightly packed that it took scientists a full day to begin peeling them back for inspection.
"We're going to be doing some sawing and some snipping," said Don Sevilla, Genesis payload manager for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "This is something that's going to take months."
All together, the capsule held billions of charged atoms -- a haul no bigger than a few grains of salt -- that could explain how the sun was formed 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists said the wafers do not have to be fully intact to extract atoms from their shattered pieces.
NASA is still investigating why the parachutes did not open.