Stunt choppers to retrieve Genesis probe

Catch!

Hollywood stunt pilots have been drafted in to help scientists catch the Genesis probe, when it returns from its mission to collect a sample of the Sun.

Astronomers have been tracking the probe closely, calculating its trajectory and working out tiny course corrections. The craft is scheduled to arrive over the US Air Force's test and training range in Utah on 8 September.

The mid-air catch manoeuvre has been resurrected from the days of the Cold War. US airforce pilots routinely snagged film canisters from spy satellites using this method, and estimate that more than 300 catches have been made. Even so, this is the first time the technique has been suggested for retrieving a capsule from a space mission, so the stunt pilots have been putting in plenty of practice.

Genesis launched in August 2001 and began collecting star dust four months later. The craft sported collection panels which were stored furled up until early December when the craft reached LaGrange 1 - a point of gravitational balance, and stability, between Earth and the Moon. The panels were open for 884 days, collecting solar particles all the while.

"What a prize Genesis will be," principal investigator Don Burnett of the California Institute of Technology told the BBC. "Our spacecraft has logged almost 27 months far beyond the Moon's orbit, collecting atoms from the Sun. With it we should be able to say what the Sun is composed of at a level of precision that has never been seen before." ®

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