Dugway Proving Ground, Utah The Genesis space capsule, which had orbited the sun for three years gathering potential clues to the origin of the solar system, crashed to Earth and cracked open Wednesday, exposing its collection of solar atoms to contamination.
Flight engineers suspect a set of tiny explosives failed to trigger the capsule's parachutes, and the capsule slammed into the Utah desert at 193 mph.
A recovery team that includes Genesis project members was dispatched to the crash site Wednesday afternoon on a salvage mission.
Scientists were hopeful they could salvage the broken disks that held billions of charged atoms collected from the solar wind, and perhaps still unravel clues about the origin and evolution of our solar system.
"This is actually not the worst-case scenario," said Andrew Dantzler, director of NASA's solar system division, noting the capsule embedded itself in soft desert soil and avoided hitting anything harder that would have made it a "total loss."
NASA planned to appoint a "mishap review board" within 72 hours that could take two to four months to determine a reason for the failure of the six-year, $260 million mission.
A helicopter was supposed to grab the Genesis capsule almost a mile above the Utah desert and lower it gently to the salt flats. But before the retrieval team learned of the parachute failure, the speeding capsule had slammed into the ground.
"There was a big pit in my stomach," said physicist Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, which designed the atom collector plates. "This just wasn't supposed to happen. We're going to have a lot of work picking up the pieces."
A recovery team was working to retrieve the capsule, buried halfway underground 30 miles northwest of this Army base on a bombing range. It was uncertain whether the capsule could be brought quickly to a clean room for an inspection.
The solar wind is a stream of highly charged particles that are emitted by the sun. Scientists hoped the charged atoms gathered in the capsule -- a "billion billion" of them -- would reveal clues about the origin and evolution of our solar system, said Don Burnett, Genesis' principal investigator and a nuclear geochemist at California Institute of Technology.