Armageddon was a walk in the park...
September 7, 2004 8:37 AM   Subscribe

Because spaceflight, in and of itself, is just way to easy. On 08 August 2001, NASA launched Genesis. It was a spacecraft that would spend 1125 days in space, including 884 days collecting 0.4 milligrams of solar particles. At that point, it would launch a 500 lbs return vehicle that would travel 600 mph back to earth. When it enters the atmosphere, at approximately 11:55am EST on Wednesday of this week, it will be going close to twenty-five thousand mph. Oddly enough, this is the easy part of the mission.

Because then, two minutes later, NASA is going to catch it. In mid-air. With a helicopter. Really.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow (32 comments total)
Their fatal mistake was using protomatter...
posted by inksyndicate at 8:39 AM on September 7, 2004

I enjoyed your write up for this post.

It is amazing to me that a plan this complex has been hatched to recover less than a milligram of material. It also seems odd that it must have cost a huge amount of money to launch the mission, but they couldn't add a few extra bucks to pad the thing for landing.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:48 AM on September 7, 2004

jacquilynne, they're worried about the contamination of that tiny amount of (very hard to get) material. The spacecraft is designed to spend most of its time in the relative vacuum of space. As it falls through the atmosphere the rising pressure outside will tend to push air and other materials into the spacecraft. That's why they want to snag it as high up as they can and get it into something sterile and sealed.
posted by Songdog at 9:04 AM on September 7, 2004

[Thumping head into wall as he realizes it should be "too easy" and not "to easy"]

posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:38 AM on September 7, 2004

I hope they've got some really strong people holding onto the netting to catch the craft.

Oh wait, you didn't mention a parachute to slow them down, geez, that makes it a little easier. I think both pilots should have to do it blindfolded and drunk to really make it worth watching.

And can we get Joe Rogan to provide commentary?
posted by fenriq at 9:42 AM on September 7, 2004

Believe it or not, this sort of thing used to be routine. Before the invention of the CCD, spy satellites would take pictures on film, and it would parachute down, to be snatched up by a passing airplane with a big hook.
posted by cameldrv at 10:11 AM on September 7, 2004

From a USA Today article:

"The stunt pilots say their biggest challenge will be flying at 40 mph nearly a mile over the Utah desert without any visual reference points to judge distance or speed as they close in with hook and cable on the capsule, which will be descending 400 feet a minute at a forward speed of 20 mph.

Because of that, the pilots rate the difficulty of the maneuver at an 8 or 9 on a scale to 10."

Blindfolded and drunk indeed.
posted by esch at 10:12 AM on September 7, 2004

c'mon, the corona system (america's first spy satellite program under eisenhower) did it.
posted by raygun21 at 11:34 AM on September 7, 2004

Couldn't they have the capsule dropped off at the ISS or Space Shuttle?
posted by five fresh fish at 2:24 PM on September 7, 2004

I watched them practice for it today on NASA tv. It was pretty damn cool.
posted by dejah420 at 7:16 PM on September 7, 2004

five fresh fish: It's probably coming in pretty fast and would need to slow down somehow to get into low earth orbit. The atmosphere is a quite convenient braking device.
posted by lazy-ville at 4:50 AM on September 8, 2004

Yes, aside from the technical difficulty of a rendezvous with the extremely fast-moving and relatively small ISS or shuttle versus aiming for a presumably more forgiving reentry window there's the risk. Why take the chance of a collision or spend an additional fortune engineering a way to prevent one when you can do a conventional parachute reentry and an unconventional but relatively cheap midair catch? Especially if you've done it before.

I'm looking forward to photos and videos of this trick, though!
posted by Songdog at 7:32 AM on September 8, 2004

FYI, it impacted on the desert floor, not due to any fault of the pilots though. The chutes failed to deploy.
posted by yupislyr at 9:05 AM on September 8, 2004

It crashed, the parachute failed. That sucks.
posted by riffola at 9:07 AM on September 8, 2004

It looks like the capsule split open on impact. $250 million mission, 2.5 years of work, all might be wasted.
posted by riffola at 9:11 AM on September 8, 2004

Plus the mutant spores are now free...THE GENESIS STRAIN!!!!
posted by ParisParamus at 9:15 AM on September 8, 2004

Umm, whoops.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:23 AM on September 8, 2004

NASA is saying that they don't think the sample containers have been damaged because the capsule was designed to cushion them in the event of a crash. Or, ya know...Paris is right and mankind is doomed...DOOMED! (I'm gonna sing the doom song now...)

And doesn't that desert look like Mars? At least from the overhead shots? Are they using an orange filter for some reason?
posted by dejah420 at 9:23 AM on September 8, 2004

BBC Science correspondent, Fergus Walsh, on the reaction of the NASA team: 'It hasn't sunk in yet.'

Sadly, from what I can see, it has....
posted by dash_slot- at 9:28 AM on September 8, 2004

Utah or bust, indeed.
Don't miss the overly optimistic URL
posted by ulotrichous at 9:57 AM on September 8, 2004

There's a good video of the crash over on MSN.
posted by crunchland at 10:10 AM on September 8, 2004

Am I the only one that is waiting that mission control has lost contact with the crew around the capsule ?
posted by fluffycreature at 10:36 AM on September 8, 2004

Helicopter pilots were presumably lucky they didn't get creamed by a 25 000kmh capsule, eh?
posted by five fresh fish at 10:53 AM on September 8, 2004

If they think it's undamaged after plumeting at 100mph into the desert floor why even bother to try and catch in with a helicopter in the first place?
posted by zeoslap at 10:57 AM on September 8, 2004

fluffycreature: Heh - that's the first thing that sprung into my mind, too.
posted by youhas at 11:38 AM on September 8, 2004

why even bother to try and catch in with a helicopter in the first place

And thus, two bold men ended their careers as Hollywood Stunt Pilots, and became PR Stunt Pilots.
posted by ulotrichous at 12:06 PM on September 8, 2004

Hey give NASA a break : while THEY land safely delicate devices traveling at mad crazy speeds in extreme conditions with the odds of a failure being close to playing national lottery, the most many of YOU can do is land you car in parking spot and you suck at that too !
posted by elpapacito at 12:18 PM on September 8, 2004

Zeoslap: The first story linked in this thread states: "This daring retrieval method will protect the samples and sensitive instruments during reentry. A crash landing, even at the capsule's relatively slow speed of 9 mph, could ruin some of the data collected during the mission."

Also, from the mission's FAQ:
"What if you miss catching it and it parachutes to the ground? If the sample return capsule lands on its own, some of the delicate collector materials will likely break, making the sample more difficult to identify and categorize. The sample would still be valuable, but it would take longer for scientists to sort through the broken pieces."
posted by LeiaS at 12:42 PM on September 8, 2004

I know who I blame for this.
posted by homunculus at 12:53 PM on September 8, 2004

Best part of the CNN article is this quote:

"Whether there will be enough science left inside remains to be seen."

posted by Jart at 1:40 PM on September 8, 2004

I really wanted the chute to deploy after the capsule had hit the ground. You know, like in the cartoons. That would have been brilliant.
posted by seanyboy at 2:04 PM on September 8, 2004

seanyboy: laughing so hard right now, in doubtful taste but loudly nonetheless.
posted by lazaruslong at 7:47 PM on September 8, 2004

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