Genesis News
Genesis Mission Status
May 23, 2002


artist's concept of Genesis
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       NASA’s Genesis spacecraft, on a mission to collect particles of the solar wind, successfully conducted its first flight path maneuver yesterday after completing its first loop around a gravitational point between the Sun and Earth.

       Genesis is orbiting a Lagrange point, designated L1, about 1.5 million kilometers (just under 1 million miles) away from Earth toward the Sun, where gravitational and centrifugal forces acting on the spacecraft are balanced. The L1 point is a convenient place to position spacecraft because it allows an uninterrupted view of the Sun, is outside the Earth’s magnetosphere and requires few spacecraft maneuvers to stay in orbit.

       “Genesis crossed the finish line of its first loop and moved smoothly into its second loop yesterday,” said Genesis mission manager Don Sweetnam, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

       Last month, a strong solar storm passed over Genesis. High-energy protons several times more abundant than usual bombarded the spacecraft. Proton storms can cause outages in the delicate electronics of a spacecraft or satellite. But Genesis’ onboard software helped the spacecraft weather the proton storm well.

       During the solar storm, the star tracker, which orients the spacecraft by centering on stars, was briefly blinded. The attitude control software handled the situation as intended, so that overall spacecraft performance was unaffected and all daily tasks were completed as scheduled.

       Genesis is collecting samples of the solar wind, invisible charged particles that flow outward from the Sun. This treasured smidgen of the Sun will be returned to Earth in 2004 and preserved in a special laboratory for study by scientists in search of answers to fundamental questions about the composition and development of our solar system.

       Genesis occupies what scientists call a "halo" orbit around L1, meaning that its orbit, when viewed from Earth, would look like a large oval around the Sun. Genesis went into the halo orbit on November 16, 2001.


Genesis leaving Earth's orbit

Genesis leaving Earth's orbit

How this transition from solar nebula to planets took place has both fascinated and mystified scientists. Why did some planets, like Venus, develop thick, poisonous atmospheres, while others, like Earth, become hospitable to life? Partial answers are available from the study of the elemental and isotopic compositions of the solar system bodies which suggests that moons, planets, and even asteroids, are significantly different in composition. These objects are "fossil residues" and differences in basic elements and isotopic compositions provide invaluable insight into how the solar nebula evolved. Using these differences scientists can model various evolutionary processes, but we are hampered by one major issue -- we do not know what the original solar nebula was made of.

The sun, which contains well over 99 percent of all the material in the solar system, may help us find the answer. While its interior has been modified by nuclear reactions, the outer layers of the sun are composed of very nearly the same material as the original solar nebula. Some of the sun's composition can be determined by the characteristics of the light it emits, but the abundances of many elements and nearly all isotopes are as yet unknown.


What if we could collect a piece of the sun? The sun's hot, turbulent surface, over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, prevents collecting a sample in the same way we would for a planet, but we can collect material flung from the sun, material we call the solar wind. By stationing a spacecraft outside Earth's magnetic field, this material can be captured and returned to Earth where high precision analyses can be carried out with some of the most sophisticated laboratory instruments in the world. Comparing the sun's isotopic composition and abundances against known planetary composition data sets may provide another piece of the puzzle in our continuing search for origins.

What Is Genesis All About?
Most scientists believe the solar system was formed 4.6 billion years ago by the gravitational collapse of the solar nebula, a cloud of interstellar gas, dust and ice created from previous generations of stars. As time went on most of the gas and dust were pulled together by gravity to form the sun while other grains of ice and dust stuck to one another, eventually forming the planets, moons, comets, and asteroids as we know them today. More info...
Mission Description
The Genesis spacecraft will be placed into orbit around L1, a point between Earth and the sun where the gravity of both bodies is balanced. Once in orbit, Genesis will unfurl its collector arrays and begin collecting particles of the solar wind that will imbed themselves in specially designed high purity wafers. After two years, the sample collectors will be re-stowed and returned to Earth for an exciting mid-air recovery of the sample return capsule. The samples will be stored and cataloged under ultra-pure cleanroom conditions and made available to the world scientific community for study.