NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day has been operating for years, but something odd appeared in the feed recently. A photo entitled “Flying Saucer Crash Lands in Utah Desert” hit the internet, and it does look a bit like the traditional flying saucer UFO. There are no aliens on the crashed saucer, though. The APOD authors are just being cheeky.
The “flying saucer” in this photo is actually the sample return module from the Genesis mission. It was saucer-shaped, and it definitely flew through the air before it crashed in the Utah desert (falling is a kind of flying, by some definitions). So, the title is technically accurate but phrased in a way that makes you suspicious.
Genesis launched in 2001 to study the solar wind. Many of the particles fired off by the sun are deflected by Earth’s magnetic field, which is good for humans. It’s not good if you want to study the solar wind, though. Genesis transferred from Earth orbit to a “Lissajous orbit” around the L2 Lagrangian point. Part of the mission involved capturing solar wind particles and returning them to Earth in the saucer-shaped sample container.
NASA didn’t intend for the Genesis container to impact the Utah desert in 2004, but it crashed in spectacular fashion thanks to a failed parachute. The 600-pound (272-kilogram) module was supposed to float down slowly enough that a helicopter would swoop in and snatch it out of the sky. NASA later determined that a design flaw in the deceleration sensor prevented the parachutes from being deployed.
The agency sent a helicopter team after the container, and a member of the US Air Force 388th Range Squadron snapped a photo of the “flying saucer” before it was removed. The crew had to wait for technicians to disable the unfired parachute pyrotechnic charges before they could move in.
This flying saucer story has a happy ending, too. Several of the solar wind samples survived impact in good condition. So, NASA still got some useful data, and we all got to see a photo of this neat flying saucer crash in the desert. The Genesis mission helped scientists work out the sun’s composition, and the distribution of elements varies across the solar system.