Friday, June 16, 2006

Science Saturday IV: A Big Oops

Two years after NASA’s Genesis probe failed to deploy its parachute upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, investigators have found the culprit: A design flaw that resulted in the backwards installation of two critical sensors. Genesis, it seems, was doomed from the start.

The easy part was launching the probe and sending it into solar orbit where it collected microscopic particles from solar wind before it returned to Earth some 1.8 billion miles later.
The hard part was getting it back in one piece.

As shown in the photo, a helicopter was deployed to pluck Genesis out of the sky after it deployed its chute, but that never happened and it slammed into the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah on September 8, 2004.
According to a report released this week by a NASA board of inquiry, the cause of the crash was a design error by a subcontractor, Lockheed Martin, which inverted two accelerometers that were supposed to trigger parachute deployment. Because of the error, the sensors never recorded the craft’s deceleration, which would have signaled that it had entered Earth’s atmosphere.

The problem was fixed before the launch of Stardust, a similar probe, which functioned correctly.

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