When is a 200-mph crash not disastrous? When it happens to the Genesis spacecraft, apparently.
Scientists who were devastated by the failure of the space probe's landing system on Sept. 8 now are delighted that recovery of science data is going far better than expected.
The spacecraft sailed through remote parts of the solar system for three years, gathering atoms from the solar wind. But when it was time to return to Earth and drift through the atmosphere above western Utah's Dugway Proving Ground, the parachutes failed.
Instead of getting plucked gently from midair by a helicopter, the science capsule slammed into Dugway's mud flats. It cracked open and some collector plates were smashed. The probe's remains were trucked to a "clean room" at Dugway's Michael Army Air Field, 30 miles from the impact point.
But much of the critical solar collector material may have been salvaged, judging by a press release NASA sent out Thursday.
"We have essentially completed the recovery and documentation process and now are in the business of preparing everything for transport," said Eileen Stansbery, quoted in the statement. However, Stansbery, an assistant director at Johnson Space Center in Houston, said it's still too early to quantify the recovery of the solar samples.
"I can tell you we have come a long way from Sept. 8, and things are looking very, very good," she added.
Retrieving a concentrator target was NASA's top priority, she said. When she saw three of four target segments remained intact and the fourth was mostly intact, "my heart leapt."
The second-highest goal was to recover a gold foil collector. It, too, is intact, though misshapen from the impact.
Don Sweetnam of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, was quoted in the release as saying Genesis still has a chance to fulfill its major science objectives. "It is a great day for Genesis, and I expect many more to come," he said.