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Sampling the Solar Wind

NASA scientists are gearing up to see what the sun is made of. The Genesis spacecraft, scheduled to launch in February of next year, just received its final piece of scientific equipment: a solar wind collector fabricated from bulk metallic glass--the same class of material used to craft high-tech golf clubs. Sampling the solar wind, the fast-moving plasma of particles from the sun, will enable a detailed analysis of solar composition, which should in turn illuminate how the solar nebula gave rise to our solar system.

The bulk metallic glass collector is one of several collecting tiles that will gather the first-ever samples of solar wind. Designed by Charles C. Hays of Caltech, the bulk metallic glass-forming alloy is a mixture of zirconium, niobium, copper, nickel and aluminum, which solidify randomly. The collecting disk made from the alloy allows solar wind particles to embed themselves--the higher their energies, the deeper they penetrate. Back in the lab, researchers can release the ions layer by layer, using sophisticated acid etching techniques to dissolve the glass.

Genesis will need to fly about 1.5 million kilometers toward the sun. Once the craft is positioned between the sun and the earth at the so-called Lagrange point, the collecting plates can begin receiving the particles. In 2003 Genesis will return with its quarry and hopefully reveal the sun's secrets.

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