The capsule penetrated the Earth's atmosphere at 1555 GMT on Wednesday. At an altitude of 33km a stabilising drogue parachute was supposed to have opened before the main parachute was to open at 6.1km. But neither opened.

 

Two helicopters each with Hollywood stunt pilots among a crew of three were in place, 29.5 km below, with a six-metre pole with a large hook on the end with which to snag the capsule's parachute when it descended to their level.

  

But with no parachute the capsule never slowed, and "it appears that it hit the ground at about 100mph (161kmph)", Chris Jones of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said.

 

Extensive damage

 

"The capsule has suffered extensive damage. It's broken apart, sitting there on the desert floor," said Jones, JPL's director of solar system exploration.

  

"Whether or not we can recover any of the science from this remains to be seen"

Chris Jones, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California

"We are going to have to recover that capsule. Hopefully there will be enough evidence for us to determine what went wrong. Whether or not we can recover any of the science from this remains to be seen," he explained.

  

The 494kg spacecraft used hexagonal wafers of silicon, gold, sapphire and diamond to capture 10 to 20 micrograms of the invisible bits of solar dust.

 

The samples were the first to be returned to Earth from outside the moon's orbit, and the first samples of any kind returned to Earth since the final Apollo mission to the moon in 1972.

  

The Genesis spacecraft was launched in August 2001 and sent to a precise point between the Earth and the sun to collect bits of solar dust that could offer clues to how the planets were formed.

  

The wafers were to be sent to the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, for study.