On This Day in Space: Sept. 8, 2004: NASA’s Genesis spacecraft crash-lands in Utah

On Sept. 8, 2004, NASA’s Genesis spacecraft crash-landed in Utah after its parachutes failed to deploy.

Genesis was NASA’s first sample-return mission since the Apollo program, and the first to bring back samples from anywhere farther than the moon. The spacecraft picked up solar wind particles while orbiting the L1 Lagrange point, which is about 1 million miles away from Earth. L1 is a “sweet spot” between the Earth and the sun, where the gravitational pull from both objects balances out.

Genesis collected samples of the solar wind using arrays made of ultrathin semiconductors called “wafers.” Atoms and ions floating around in space stuck to these wafers, and Genesis was supposed to bring them back safely. But that didn’t happen, because its parachute didn’t work.

Genesis tumbled from the sky and slammed into the Utah desert. Scientists literally had to pick up the pieces. The wafers containing all their samples had shattered into thousands of little shards. Luckily, scientists were still able to salvage some of the samples.

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