This NASA photo of a crashed ‘Flying Saucer’ has a truly amazing story behind it

Any species that reaches for the stars will definitely have their fingertips sung. Probably more than once.

One of NASA’s posts on the Astronomy Picture of the Day website is an iconic reminder of the accidents in our space science history.

“A flying saucer from space crashed into the Utah desert after being tracked by radar and chased by helicopters,” reads a description of the photo published in November 2018, although NASA does not hint at an alien visit here.

The battered dish, half buried in the desert sand, was actually the return capsule of the Genesis spacecraft. And he shouldn’t have touched it in such a brutal way.

Launched on August 8, 2001, the Genesis mission was an ambitious effort by the space agency to send a spacecraft into the solar wind of our parent star, collect samples and return them to Earth.

By collecting data on the composition of charged particles flowing from the solar corona, the researchers hoped to pinpoint the composition of the star and learn more about the elements that existed around the formation of the planets of the solar system.

To bring us samples of the solar wind, the Genesis is equipped with a return capsule containing a container of solar wind material, collected when the ship spent two years in orbit around Lagrange Point 1 – one of the places in space where gravity from Earth and the Sun are precisely balanced.

The spacecraft caught the solar wind by folding a series of collector rows, each of which is full of high-purity materials such as aluminum, sapphire, silicon, and even gold.

562046main genesis20110623a fullArtistic representation of a spacecraft with folded arrays. (NASA / JPL-Caltech)

“The materials we used in the Genesis collector arrays had to be physically strong enough to launch without breaking; keep the sample while the sun warmed it during collection; and be clean enough to be able to analyze the elements of the solar wind after the Earth returns,” she explained. September 2004. project scientist Amy Jurewicz.

Five days later, that capsule sample and its precious arrays crashed into the ground in the state of Utah, with an estimated speed of 310 km / h (193 mph).

GenesisImpact nasa 960(USAF 388th Range Square, Genesis Mission, NASA)

What was supposed to happen was quite different – 127 seconds after re-entering the atmosphere, a mortar on board would fire, releasing a preliminary parachute to slow down and stabilize the descent.

The main parachute was then to be inflated, giving the capsule an easy descent into the Utah test and training ground.

In the photo of the crash you can see the helicopters – they were hovering nearby, ready to grab the capsule into the air and transfer it directly to a clean room to avoid contamination of the samples.

None of these parachutes were set.

After a thorough investigation, the error was found next to a series of sensors, barely the size of the metal end of a pen. They were installed backwards.

These small devices were to detect increasing g-forces as the capsule descended to the ground and trigger the parachute deployment.

As you can imagine, the collision caused serious damage, breaking several strings and contaminating the precious cargo inside.

Once the capsule sample was taken from the site of the sunken heart, the project team set out in search of all that could still be recovered and studied.

DSCN5512 largeOne of the Genesis team, Karen McNamara, is examining the damage to the capsule. (NASA)

Fortunately, the Genesis mission was not completely destroyed, even after such a dramatic arrival of the capsule sample. Some of the solid collector materials survived, and the researchers were able to clean the surfaces without interfering with the solar material built inside.

Within three years, a series of papers on the findings of Genesis was published. Thanks to a daring mission, we learned unprecedented details about the composition of the Sun and the elemental differences between our star and the inner planets of the solar system.

“The Sun contains more than 99 percent of the material currently in our solar system, so it’s a good idea to get to know it better,” said Genesis chief researcher Don Burnett of the California Institute of Technology in 2011.

“While it was more challenging than expected, we answered some important questions, and like all successful missions, we generated a lot more.”

A version of this story was first published in November 2018.