To increase understanding of the sun’s composition, NASA in 2001 launched the $264 million Genesis mission to collect samples from the solar wind — electrically charged particles blown out from the sun at up to 2 million mph.

“We are bringing a piece of the sun down to Earth,” says Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Planetary scientists expect that analysis of the pristine solar dust will reveal the chemistry of the interstellar dust cloud from which the solar system arose 4.5 billion years ago.

To prevent contamination and damage to the fragile silicon wafers that collected the star dust should the Genesis capsule hit the ground, NASA will try to snare the capsule in midair as it descends.

NASA will deploy two helicopters to capture the capsule’s parachute. Flying 4,500 feet above the Air Force’s Utah Test and Training Range, the helicopters will fly into position behind the plummeting capsule. Skimming only 8 feet above the parachute, one helicopter boom will hook a 450-foot cable to the samples, allowing a safe recovery. The second helicopter will back up the effort and help guide the recovery. Officials say the retrieval plan has a better than 90% chance of success.

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