December 31, 2004

Top Space Stories of 2004: Genesis

Counting down the top ten astrobiology stories for 2004 highlights the accomplishments of those exploring Mars, Saturn, comets, and planets beyond Pluto. Number ten in this countdown was the remarkable story of the Genesis mission, the first attempt to capture solar wind and return it for laboratory analysis.

Astrobiology Magazine -- Six years ago, then NASA Associate Administrator Wesley Huntress, Jr., stated , "Wherever liquid water and chemical energy are found, there is life. There is no exception." Few opportune years like 2004 have presented astrobiology with as many remarkable vistas and fresh perspectives on this fundamental triad of water, chemical energy and life.

Consider this year's accomplishments of those dedicated to searching for life in the universe.

Landing on Mars not once, but twice. Then finding evidence for water on opposite sides of the red planet. Picking up what appears to be methane signals in the martian atmosphere, one of the residues that might prove one day to be the product of underground biology. Scientists began to discuss seriously what colonization strategies make sense.

Setting off to explore the even richer atmosphere of the Earth-like moon, Titan. Spiraling into orbital capture around Saturn and photographing its majestic rings.

Flying through the tail of a comet and heading home after collecting the first extraterrestrial samples from such dusty iceballs. Launching the Deep Impact probe to smash into a comet and watch how the dust and ice get kicked up.

Filling the astronomy catalogs with well over a hundred new planets, including what may prove to be the first visible exoplanet. Finding some nearby candidates that might occupy temperate locations or safely orbit Sun-like stars.

Witnessing the once-per-century passage of our neighboring Venus across the face of the Sun. The MESSENGER probe took off on its decade long tour of the inner solar system to orbit Mercury.

Discovering the largest planetoids beyond Pluto among those outer nurseries where only comets visit.

The editors of Astrobiology Magazine revisit the highlights of the year and where possible point to one of the strongest lineups ever for beginning a new turn of the calendar. Between the marathon still being run by the twin Mars rovers and the expected descent to Saturn's moon, Titan, next year promises no letdowns.

Number ten on the countdown of 2004 highlights was the mission to collect solar wind called Genesis. As the first return of extraterrestrial samples since the final moon rocks, this tiny capsule survived a crash in the Utah desert yet may still reveal what magnetically charged wind flows out from the Sun to fill the void between all the planets and moons.


Genesis represented NASA's first sample return mission since December 1972, when Apollo 17 returned lunar samples to Earth. The spacecraft had been gathering atoms streaming off the sun's corona for the past two years. These solar wind samples, which were contained in collector wafers made of gold, sapphire, silicon and diamond, were stored within the capsule.

In Utah on September 8, NASA reported that parachute and parafoil failures led to desert impact of the Genesis probe. Even though the capsule failed to deploy its parachute, scientists and engineers continue to examine the wafers for examples of solar wind.

The solar wind samples reflect the composition of the solar nebula - the disk of gas and dust that formed the planets in the solar system - because, according to principal investigator Don Burnett, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, "the nebula is frozen for us in the surface layers of the sun." By comparing the nebula materials with the composition of the planets today, scientists hope to determine how the planets have changed over time.

"Most of what has been learned about the early solar system has been gotten from meteorites and cosmic dust," says NASA Genesis program scientist David Lindstrom, of NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We also know these have been modified by later processes in the solar system." The sun's corona, on the other hand, is considered to be a relatively unaltered representation of the solar nebula.

What Next?

- Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) launch, Mars Orbiter to collect high-resolution, 1-meter, images in stereo-view of Mars
- European Venus Express, Venus Orbiter for two-year nominal mapping life [486 days, two Venus year]

- New Horizons, Pluto and moon Charon flyby, mapping to outer solar system cometary fields and Kuiper Belt
- Dawn, Asteroid Ceres and Vesta rendezvous and orbiter, including investigations of asteroid water and influence on meteors
- Kepler, Extrasolar Terrestrial Planet Detection Mission, designed to look for transiting or earth-size planets that eclipse their parent stars [survey 100,000 stars]
- Europa Orbiter, planned Orbiter of Jupiters ice-covered moon, Europa, uses a radar sounder to bounce radio waves through the ice
- Japanese SELENE Lunar Orbiter and Lander, to probe the origin and evolution of the moon

- Japanese Planet-C Venus Orbiter, to study the Venusian atmosphere, lightning, and volcanoes.
- Mars Scout mission, final selections August 2003 from four Scouts: SCIM, ARES, MARVEL and Phoenix
- French Mars Remote Sensing Orbiter and four small Netlanders, linked by Italian communications orbiter

- BepiColumbo, European Mercury Orbiters and Lander, including Japanese collaborators, lander to operate for one week on surface
- Mars 2009, proposed long-range rover to demonstrate hazard avoidance and accurate landing dynamics


On the Net:


Genesis Mission