Sun Sample Return Mission Nears Launch
According to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, the spacecraft has just received its final piece of science equipment: a solar wind collector made of bulk metallic glass, similar to materials found in high-tech golf clubs. It and other solar wind collector tiles on the spacecraft will gather the first-ever samples of the solar wind as the spacecraft floats in the oncoming solar stream outside Earth's magnetosphere.
On its return to Earth in 2003, samples collected by Genesis will be retrieved in midair by helicopters and sent to laboratories for detailed analysis.
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Because the outer layers of the Sun are composed of nearly the same material as the original solar nebula, samples returned by Genesis will shed new light on the chemical evolution of meteorites, comets, lunar samples, and planetary atmospheres.
The body of the spacecraft contains a canister with collector plates that fold out like blades on a pocket knife to collect solar wind. Most of the collectors are hexagonal silicon wafers, but one is different. Capping the shaft on which the collector plates rotate will be a disk about the size of a coffee cup that is a unique formulation of bulk metallic glass created especially for Genesis.
In an odd mix of science and sports, golfers and Genesis scientists both like bulk metallic glasses, but for different reasons. Premium golf clubs can be made with a kind of bulk metallic glass that is hard but springy. Scientists use a type that absorbs and retains helium and neon, important elements in understanding solar and planetary processes.
The new bulk metallic glass-forming alloy was designed by Dr. Charles C. Hays in the materials science laboratories of Caltech. It is a complex mixture of zirconium, niobium, copper, nickel, and aluminum. The atoms of metallic glasses solidify in a random fashion, unlike metals that have an ordered crystalline structure. This disordered atomic state makes metallic glasses useful in a wide range of applications, from aircraft components to high-tech golf clubs. The Genesis metallic glass was prepared in a collaborative effort by Hays and George Wolter of the Howmet Corporation, Greenwich, Conn., using the same process the company uses for the high-tech Vitreloy-based golf clubs.
Above: The Genesis Mission's bulk metallic glass solar wind collector.
"One exciting thing about bulk metallic glass is that it will enable us to study ions with energies higher than the solar wind. This allows Genesis to test proposals that the higher energy particles differ in composition from the solar wind," said Burnett. This will be the first time the theories about different kinds of solar wind can be tested by bringing back actual samples, he said.
Below: A specially modified helicopter with a boom and winch underneath snags the parafoil chute attached to a model Genesis sample return capsule. The hook on the end of the boom collapses the chute, allowing the helicopter to retrieve the capsule in mid-air. This is necessary to ensure the purity of the solar wind samples inside. This photo was taken during successful trials of this novel capsule recovery technology.
Genesis is managed by JPL for NASA's Office of Space Science, in Washington, DC. It is part of NASA's Discovery Program of low-cost, highly focused science missions. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology.
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|For lesson plans and educational activities related to breaking science news, please visit Thursday's Classroom||Source: JPL Press Release
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