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STUNT PILOTS TO CATCH SUN'S WISPS TODAY

9-01-004sm.jpgAfter seven years, three million miles, and $260 million, Hollywood stunt pilots will have exactly one chance today to snag a returning NASA space probe."Genesis" is the space agency's first attempt since the end of the Apollo Era to bring samples back from the beyond in this case, a collection of ions shorn from the solar wind. But the thin wafers of gold, diamond, sapphire, and silicon used to capture the samples are so delicate, they'll shatter if they hit planetside.Enter Dan Rudert, a helicopter pilot who's flown stunts and aerial camera runs for flicks like The Hulk and XXX. He's one of two chopper-captains (one lead, and one backup) poised to grab the plummeting 500-pound collector before it hits the ground, and return it gently to Utah's Dugway Proving Ground.19 miles above the ground, the capsule will open its first parachute, slowing its speed to 410 miles per hour. A second, hang glider-esque chute will unfurl about a mile-and-a-half up. And then Rudert and company will spring into action.Flying just a bit above and behind the capsule at 38 miles per hour, Rudert will use an 18.5 foot-long pole to hook the chute's lead lines. Once the link is made, a tiny explosive will fire a pin into the hook, securing the connection. The capsule will then be gently plunked into a sealed container, and the whole package will be brought to a clean room for decontamination.NASA scientists believe the samples will be their best chance yet to get a detailed picture of what the Sun is made of. And by better understanding the makeup of the Solar System's grandaddy, researchers believe they'll get a much clearer picture of how the neighborhood's youngsters like the Earth and Mars were born and grew up.That is, if everything goes right at Dugway. If Rudert doesn't make the grab or the chute doesnt open, or a hundred other things go south it's mission over. And that would send a whole bunch of space scientists scrambling for the Drano. Collecting Genesis' itty-bitty samples just two hundred-thousandths of a gram has been beyond burdensome. The probe flew a million and a half miles towards the Sun, to collect its solar ions. Then it swung a million miles past the Earth, so it could be properly positioned to rendezvous with the Hollywood pilots over Utah. Talk about making the first take count.SPACE-GENESIS.jpgTHERE'S MORE: Rats. Damn. This sucks: Genesis has "crashed to Earth... after its parachute failed to deploy," the AP is reporting."It wasn't immediately known whether [Genesis'] cosmic samples had been destroyed," the wire service says.CNN's Miles O'Brien is blogging it up with the latest on the crash.

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