U professor says lucky events saved solar research

Amy Horst

Twenty-four screws and good luck might have saved a University professor’s $1 million project last month.

That lucky professor, Robert Pepin, talked to approximately 60 people Thursday about solar research he had aboard the spacecraft Genesis, which crashed in the Utah wilderness last month.

“This stuff here is Utah. Pieces of Utah. Muddy, muddy Utah,” Pepin said as he showed a slide of the crash site, where the capsule lay squashed in the ground after a rare Utah rain.

In another slide, helicopters surrounded the crashed capsule.

“This picture always disturbs me,” Pepin said. “Have you guys ever seen vultures circling a carcass? These kind of look like vultures.”

As it turned out, Pepin’s research didn’t have much in common with a carcass. The 20-square-inch sheet of gold foil that held his research was padded by other items beneath it when the capsule crashed.

It was also held down with 24 screws, which, Pepin said, he thought were a bit much before the craft took off.

“At the time, I looked at it and said, ‘you could’ve used four,’ ” he said.

But now, he said, he thinks those screws might have stabilized the sheet when Genesis crashed, helping save most of the data it had gathered.

Dennis Schlutter, a University scientist and researcher with the Genesis project, said he felt fortunate to have much of the project recovered because his funding depends on it.

But, he said, he also felt badly for other scientists whose data was destroyed. He had gotten to know many of them through annual meetings in Houston, he said.

Another project the group is working on is highly unlikely to suffer a similar fate, researchers said.

The Stardust spacecraft, which is gathering dust from the Wild 2 comet, is not as fragile as Genesis, said Russel Palma, visiting professor of physics and researcher with Genesis. That spacecraft is designed to land on the ground, whereas Genesis was meant to be caught in midair by a kite-like parafoil pulled by helicopters.