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The Genesis space capsule dropped like a stone

Stunned British and American scientists watched a seven-year dream fall to Earth yesterday at 150mph, potentially smashing the fruits of a $250m mission. A parachute failed to open, and a capsule filled with particles trapped directly from the sun - the first ever delivery to Earth of material from beyond the moon - dropped like a stone from the edge of space and hit the muddy sands of the Utah desert with a thud. Inside the capsule was the most delicate and expensive material ever wrapped in a parcel. The Genesis mission carried suntraps made of thin wafers of gold, diamond and sapphire out into space to a point a million miles from Earth. In 30 months, these wafers probably caught billions of atoms of stuff from the sun, ejected in solar explosions at speeds of a million miles an hour. In total, the payload sent back to Earth weighed no more than a fraction of a grain of salt. It was carried in a large sealed container and dropped by the returning spacecraft just before 5pm yesterday. Below, two Hollywood stunt pilots circled in helicopters, hoping to hook the parachute that should have opened to slow the descent of the return capsule as it swayed across the sands of the desert. They would have had five chances to do so during the descent. They had practised the manoeuvre almost a dozen times, and caught the test capsule every time. When the real thing happened, they didn't get a chance. By the time scientists had realised what was happening, the canister of sunshine was half buried in the sand, reports the Guardian Unlimited. According to CNN, Instead of the smooth midair retrieval NASA expected, the $264 million Genesis mission to study the solar wind ended in a crater in the Utah desert Wednesday. NASA scientists watched the Genesis space capsule tumble out of the sky and plunge into the desert at 193 mph near the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. The impact smashed open the science capsule, exposing its precious scientific cargo to contamination. But scientists were cautiously optimistic that the payload -- dozens of fragile tiles that had collected particles of the solar wind for about two years -- could still yield viable material. the Genesis spacecraft plummeted straight past the pilots and slammed into the Earth at 150mph after both its main and drogue parachutes did not open. In the blink of an eye, one billion billion particles collected from the "solar wind" turned into a few flecks amid the twisted wreckage of what had been a piece of high-precision engineering. Watching aghast as the events were broadcast over the web was Dr Ian Franchi, of the Open University's planetary sciences group - which, only a few months before, mourned the loss of the Beagle 2 spacecraft over Mars. He had been hoping to be one of the first in the world to analyse the samples; a whole building had been designed around the need for an ultra-sterile place in which to examine the precious atoms plucked from the cosmos, informs the NEWS.

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