• Introduction
    • Genesis



      What is the Sun composed of?  Are the Earth and planets made of the same materials?  The Genesis mission sent a spacecraft to collect pieces of the Sun, called solar wind, to find answers to these questions, to enrich our understanding of the birth and evolution of the planets and all the bodies in our solar system.

      Scientists believe our solar system formed about 4.5 billion years ago from a solar nebula made of gasses, dust and ice. As time passed, most of the material was pulled together by gravity to form the Sun and other celestial bodies as we know them today. Nearly all of the original solar nebula exists today as the Sun, which has more than 99% of the solar system’s mass.

      The Sun’s outer layers are thought to be composed of nearly the same distribution of elements and isotopes that made up the solar nebula. The Sun continuously ejects its outer layers as solar wind. By capturing the solar wind, scientists can compare its composition with that of other bodies and develop an understanding how the solar nebula developed into a planetary system.


      Mission Management

      Dr. Donald Burnett
      Dr. Donald Burnett
      Principal Investigator

      The Genesis project is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. Dr. Donald Burnett of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, is the Principal Investigator. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, CO, designed, built and operated the spacecraft.

  • Objectives & Details
    • Objectives

      The purpose of the Genesis mission is to observe and collect particles of solar wind and return them to Earth.

      The solar wind samples will provide:

      Data on the isotopic composition of solar matter

      A reservoir of solar matter to meet the needs of 21st century planetary science

      Independent measurements of the different kinds of solar wind

      By analyzing the captured solar wind in laboratories on Earth, scientists can determine the precise ratios of isotopes and elements in the solar nebula to help answer:

      How did the transformation from solar nebula to planets take place?

      Why did some planets, like Venus, develop thick, poisonous atmospheres?

      How did the Earth's environment develop to sustain life?


      Genesis was launched August 8, 2001, from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard a Delta II rocket. On November 16, 2001, Genesis traveled to a point about one million miles from Earth where the gravities of Earth and the Sun are balanced, called the Lagrange 1 point, or "L1," and entered into a halo orbit. At this location Genesis was well outside of Earth's atmosphere and magnetic environment, allowing it to collect pristine samples of the solar wind.

      A Genesis collector array.
      A Genesis collector array.









      The Genesis spacecraft lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
      The Genesis spacecraft lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
  • Collection & Return
    • In early December 2001 the space probe's collector arrays were deployed and the ion concentrator was turned on. The collector arrays are circular trays composed of palm-sized hexagonal tiles made of various materials such as silicon, sapphire, gold, and diamond-like carbon. The spacecraft spent 26 months capturing solar wind, then the collectors were re-stowed and the spacecraft headed back to Earth.

      On September 8, 2004, the sample return capsule separated from the spacecraft and entered Earth's atmosphere, heading for the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range and a spectacular mid-air capture by a waiting helicopter. However, the neither the drogue parachute nor the parafoil deployed, and the capsule impacted the desert floor at nearly 200 mph.

      The science canister containing the solar wind particles was transported to a specially constructed clean room nearby where team members began the tedious effort to extract the pieces and inventory the contents. The team recovered 15,000 pieces of the shattered collector wafers - still containing the solar wind atoms.

      Three of the four segments of the solar wind concentrator were intact. Designed to measure the isotopic ratios of oxygen and nitrogen, these segments contain the mission's most important science goal. The gold foil collector, the number two priority for science recovery, was undamaged and in excellent condition.

      The samples arrived at the Genesis clean room at NASA's Johnson Space Center curation facility a month later. The science team began work to sort, number and package the samples and deal with contamination issues.

      The Mishap Investigation Board identified a likely direct cause for the failure of the parachute system to open. A faulty design resulted in the gravity switches which sense deceleration as the capsule enters the Earth's atmosphere being improperly installed on a circuit board.



      Close-up of Genesis capsule shortly after return.

      Close-up of Genesis capsule shortly after return.

      A few of the thousands of pieces of the broken  collector wafers
      A few of the thousands of pieces of the broken collector wafers, retrieved from the desert floor.



      Solar wind concentrator with 3 of 4 segments intact.

      Solar wind concentrator with 3 of 4 segments intact.
  • Results
    • After careful cleaning to remove surface contamination, many of the recovered fragments have been allocated to eagerly awaiting investigators. Using the world's best mass spectrometers, they have been extracting and counting the solar wind atoms. To date, precise elemental and isotopic abundances have been determined for noble gases such as helium, neon and argon, as well as iron and magnesium. These are being compared with known abundances for Earth, the Moon, Jupiter, and comet Wild 2.

      Among the findings announced at the 2008 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference was one that took many scientists by surprise:  the pattern of oxygen isotopes on the Sun is similar to that seen previously in meteorites but differs greatly from that of Earth. The Genesis findings suggest the isotopic ratios of the Sun and meteorites should be considered normal, while ratios on Earth and elsewhere in the inner solar system are anomalous and require some process to account for the isotopic difference.     

      The discoveries will continue for years to come. While the instruments created for the Genesis mission are among the most advanced right now, capabilities will improve.
      That is the great advantage of bringing samples back to Earth.

      Findings from the Genesis mission have been published in the November 17, 2006,  issue of Science, the October 19, 2007, issue of Science, andthe June 2007 issue of Space Science Reviews. The 2009 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) featured a session on “Solar wind and Genesis:  Measurements and Interpretation.”   The 2010 LPSC also featured Genesis findings in a session on “Solar Wind, Volatile Elements, and Organics.”  For more Genesis publications, visit the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Genesis web site.



      Examining fragments in the cleanroom to assess the degree of contamination.
      Examining fragments in the cleanroom to assess the degree of contamination.

      A mass spectrometer
      A mass spectrometer at UCLA is one of the highly sophisticated instruments being used to analyze Genesis samples.

  • Noteworthy
    • Genesis samples are the first extraterrestrial materials returned to Earth by NASA since the Apollo program, which ended in the early 1970s.

      The Genesis laboratory at the Johnson Space Center consists of the two cleanest rooms that NASA operates at any facility. Their heavily filtered air is certified to contain less than 10 particles measuring half a micron or larger per cubic foot. That’s 1,000 times cleaner than the typical hospital operating room!



      Genesis solar wind sample

      Judy Allton, Genesis solar wind sample curator at Johnson Space Center, examines the gold foil collector in the ultra-clean Genesis cleanroom.