Open Eye: OU role in Nasa's 2001 Space Odyssey

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The Independent Online
Genesis is a NASA mission which will make history by being the first to collect samples of the sun.

Among the small band of experts who will be analysing these precious samples are scientists from the OU's Planetary Sciences Research Institute (PSRI).

They hope that the information obtained will ultimately yield more information about the creation of our solar system.

"We know broadly what the sun is made up of but we do not have very precise measurements because they have all been made from Earth, using telescopes," said Dr Ian Franchi, who heads the PSRI project.

"The sun makes up 99.9 percent of the total mass of the solar system, and its outer layers are the same composition as they were four and half billion years ago when the solar system formed.

"We need more precise measurements of the sun's composition if we want to know what the solar system was formed from, and the processes that went on during its formation."

The Genesis spacecraft is set to launch in January 2001. Once out of the protective shield of the Earth's magnetosphere it will spend two years collecting material from the solar wind - the stream of highly-ionised gas flowing continuously from the sun - before returning to Earth.

The solar samples will be the first extra-terrestrial material to be brought to Earth since the lunar rock samples were retrieved by the Apollo missions nearly 30 years ago.

PSRI is one of about 15 labs around the world involved in the project. It will be using techniques and equipment it has developed to analyse meteorites, including the famous Martian meteorite which led NASA to announce evidence of life on Mars.

Says Ian: "We will be measuring the carbon, oxygen and nitrogen isotopes in the samples. In the case of the carbon we are the only laboratory on the planet with the capability to do this analysis."

Scientists from PSRI took part in a Genesis workshop and gave a series of presentations on their work at the 30th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference which was held in Houston, Texas, last month.

Yvonne Cook