Los Alamos instruments capturing the sun

December 04, 2001

LOS ALAMOS, NM, Dec. 4, 2001 - NASA's Genesis mission swings into full gear today as its instruments, three of which were designed and built by the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory, begin capturing particles from the sun.

Genesis, a remote-controlled space mission, went into orbit Nov. 16 around the Lagrange 1, or L1 point, a place nearly one million miles from the Earth toward the sun where the gravities of the Earth and sun are balanced. Genesis will hang out around the L1 point for nearly two and a half years and then return to Earth. During this time, Genesis' instruments will collect samples of the solar wind to reveal the makeup of the cloud that formed the solar system nearly five billion years ago and will help scientists understand the origin of the solar system.

"When you send up the commands and the instruments come on for the first time in space, you feel like you are out there yourself - it's really a great feeling," said Roger Wiens, leader of the Genesis payload team at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Scientists believe the solar system likely began with a dense cloud of gas and dust that collapsed in on itself. Most of this "solar nebula" condensed to form the sun, while outlying particles coalesced into the diverse planets, moons and comets that make up our solar system.

Although scientists have a general understanding of the formation of the solar system, the composition of the initial nebula remains relatively unknown. Fortunately, nature provides a record of the solar nebula; its pristine composition is preserved for the most part in the outer layers of the sun. The solar wind provides a continuous flow of this material into space.

Genesis' main goal is to determine isotopic ratios of different elements in solar matter, with a focus on oxygen - an element making up two thirds of everything found on earth. Oxygen isotope ratios vary among the different planets in the solar system, and this puzzles scientists because all solar system bodies were supposedly formed from the same raw materials. An isotope is a variation of an element - it has more or fewer neutrons in its nucleus making it heavier or lighter than the average weight of the element.

Los Alamos designed and built a solar wind concentrator to collect a high concentration of oxygen and return the sample back to Earth for analysis. The concentrator takes solar wind and passes it through a series of electrically charged grids into a bowl-shaped mirror. The mirror reflects a filtered stream of elements heavier than hydrogen upward into a centrally poised collector tile, where oxygen and other elements embed themselves.

"The concentrator is the first solar instrument sent into space that we will ever see again," said Beth Nordholt, of the Neutron Science and Technology Group and one of the leaders on the concentrator instrument. "All other instruments aboard spacecraft remain in space indefinitely, or, like Lunar Prospector, are intentionally crashed after their mission ends. This is the first mission in three decades, since the Apollo missions in the seventies, that will bring extraterrestrial samples back to Earth for analysis."

The other two Los Alamos instruments aboard Genesis are solar wind ion and electron monitors. Genesis' ion and electron monitors instantaneously determine the speed, density, temperature and approximate composition of the solar wind and translate that knowledge into actions for the solar wind concentrator and solar wind collector arrays - five meter-sized panels containing 55 coaster-sized tiles made of a variety of materials selected to trap specific elements in the solar wind.

"The monitors were turned on several months ago in preparation for their role during solar wind collections," said Wiens. "These instruments communicate with Earth frequently and give a solar wind weather report over the mission's duration. We have data from the flight to L1 and it has been exciting watching the space weather so far. We've had a rather stormy autumn in space, which has been great for checking out our instruments."

Genesis will collect just 10 to 20 micrograms of solar wind - or the equivalent of a few grains of salt. The extraterrestrial material will return to Earth in 2004 - in the spacecraft's specially designed sample return capsule - for study by scientists around the world over the next century in search of answers to fundamental questions about the exact composition of the sun and solar system.
-end-
Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy.

For more Los Alamos news releases, visit World Wide Web site http://www.lanl.gov/external/news/releases

DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory

Related Solar System Articles from Brightsurf:

Ultraviolet shines light on origins of the solar system
In the search to discover the origins of our solar system, an international team of researchers, including planetary scientist and cosmochemist James Lyons of Arizona State University, has compared the composition of the sun to the composition of the most ancient materials that formed in our solar system: refractory inclusions in unmetamorphosed meteorites.

Second alignment plane of solar system discovered
A study of comet motions indicates that the Solar System has a second alignment plane.

Pressure runs high at edge of solar system
Out at the boundary of our solar system, pressure runs high.

What a dying star's ashes tell us about the birth of our solar system
A UA-led team of researchers discovered a dust grain forged in a stellar explosion before our solar system was born.

What scientists found after sifting through dust in the solar system
Two recent studies report discoveries of dust rings in the inner solar system: a dust ring at Mercury's orbit, and a group of never-before-detected asteroids co-orbiting with Venus, supplying the dust in Venus' orbit.

Discovered: The most-distant solar system object ever observed
A team of astronomers has discovered the most-distant body ever observed in our solar system.

Discovery of the first body in the Solar System with an extrasolar origin
Asteroid 2015 BZ509 is the very first object in the Solar System shown to have an extrasolar origin.

First interstellar immigrant discovered in the solar system
A new study has discovered the first known permanent immigrant to our solar system.

A star disturbed the comets of the solar system in prehistory
About 70,000 years ago, when the human species was already on Earth, a small reddish star approached our solar system and gravitationally disturbed comets and asteroids.

Scientists detect comets outside our solar system
Scientists from MIT and other institutions, working closely with amateur astronomers, have spotted the dusty tails of six exocomets -- comets outside our solar system -- orbiting a faint star 800 light years from Earth.

Read More: Solar System News and Solar System Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.