Space Place Live! with Don Burnett

Our guest in this episode helped to catch the solar wind, bringing samples of the Sun back to Earth. Don Burnett is the principal investigator on the Genesis mission. He explains how the mission worked and what it is teaching us about how the solar system formed.

Start of show

Kyo: Hi! My name is Kyo. Welcome to Space Place Live. Today we're visiting with another NASA scientist.

Kate: Hi! I'm Kate. We'd like you to meet our guest, Don Burnett. He's here from Caltech. That's a very famous university in Pasadena, California.

Don: Hi kids. Thanks for inviting me.

Kyo: Don, what do you do?

Don: I'm a retired professor at Caltech, but I'm also the prinicipal investigator on a space mission called Genesis.

Kyo: I think our principal should be investigated. He sent me to detention last week and I didn't hardly do anything!

Kate: Oh Kyo! Not that kind of principal. So, what does the principal investigator do, Don?

Don: Well, I'm the person who's pretty much in charge of everything on the Genesis mission.

Kyo: Genesis? What does that mean?

Don: Genesis means beginning. The Genesis mission is designed to help us understand the way the solar system formed.

Kate: Oh! Like the big bang beginning?

Don: No, no that beginning, but about 10 billion years later. Our solar system got its start about four and a half billion years ago.

Kate: Gee! That's a long time! How's it going to tell us about that beginning?

Don: Let me tell you a little about the mission first. The Genesis spacecraft was launched in August 2001 with just one big task: to collect particles from the Sun and return them to the Earth for us to study.

Kyo: It went up to the Sun? Didn't it just burn up?

Don: It didn't actually go to the Sun, Kyo. The Sun is emitting particles all the time in what we call the solar wind. So all we had to do is intercept this flow of particles to be able to capture material from the Sun.

Kate: Eww! Do we get blasted with that stuff too?

Don: Nope! Lucky for us, Earth is surrounded by a magnetic field that protects us from the solar wind.

Kyo: Oh! That must be like the deflector shield on the Star Trek Enterprise.

Kate: As you might guess, Kyo's a science fiction freak.

Don: Well yes, Earth's magnetic field is sort of like a deflector shield for the solar wind, so all we had to is send Genesis a million miles out in space, outside of the Earth's magnetic field.

Kate: So, how did you catch the solar wind?

Don: With three particle collectors about the size of bicycle tires, like in these pictures. Each collector had about 50 wafers made out of different kinds of materials.

Kyo: Awesome! But before we find out more about Genesis, let's take a commercial break. Don't go away!


Kyo: We're back. That was a really cool picture of Genesis, Don. How long did the mission take? Is it still out there?

Don: Well, the collectors stayed up for 27 months. Then, with the samples safely stowed, the spacecraft headed back to Earth. It flew close and in September 2004, dropped off the sample capsule right over the desert in Utah.

Kate: Oh! And what did the stuff from the Sun look like?

Don: Well, I hate to disappoint you but even though Genesis collected around a sextillion particles, they are too small to see with your eyes. All together they barely amount to a few grains of salt.

Kate: A sextillion? Is that a real number?

Don: A sextillion is ten with twenty zeroes after it.

Kyo: Wow! But hey, I thought scientists already knew all about our own star. Don't they?

Don: Oh no. We still have lots of questions. We want to know how the Sun and the solar system and everything in it was formed, including us. We have some ideas, but we're not sure. One way to test our ideas is to study the chemistry of the Sun.

Kate: I heard that we're made of star stuff. Does that mean that the Sun has the same stuff in it that we do?

Don: Well, in a way. The Sun is mostly hydrogen and helium, and we are mostly made of other elements, but the Sun and the rest of the solar system all came from the same big cloud of gas and dust.

Kyo: Well that explains a lot. I know some kids who have big clouds of gas and dust for brains!

Kate: So, who are you talking about Kyo?

Kyo: Oh. Nobody you know, Kate.

Don: As I was saying, all the atoms in our bodies, and in all our brains, were made inside stars.

Kate: That is so incredible! I still have lots of questions, but we also want to find out more about you, Don.

Kyo: Yeah, are there other things you do besides work on Genesis?

Don: Oh yes. I'm a professor of geochemistry. I'm officially retired now,but I still teach some and spend a few days a week in my office at Caltech. If I stopped coming in they might make me move all my stuff out. After 30 years in the same office, that would be a really big job.

Kate: Wow! That's a lot of stuff!

Kyo: Well, I see it's time for another break. We'll be right back.


Kyo: We're back, talking to Don Burnett. Don, you mentioned that you were into geochemistry. What is that?

Don: It's like chemistry, but a geochemist is especially interested in rocks and what they are made of and all the chemical processes that go on in making them.

Kate: Well, we know that you study the Sun, but do you study any other planets besides the Earth?

Don: Oh yes, I've always been interested in rocks in space that fall to Earth as meteorites. They come from the asteroids mostly, but also from Mars and from the Moon.

Kate: Were there lots of space rocks around your neighborhood growing up?

Kyo: What? Do you think he was born on Mars or something, Kate?

Kate: No! I just thought maybe one or two had fallen into his backyard, that's all.

Don: No, I wasn't so lucky. I grew up in Dayton, Ohio. I went to University of Chicago for my bachelor's degree, then to the University of California at Berkeley for my graduate work, and then I came straight to Caltech.

Kyo: What do you like to do for fun? Besides your fun work, that is.

Don: My wife and I have a cabin nearby in the mountains. We like to go up there, take walks, watch the birds, and enjoy the wildflowers.

Kate: Hey, do you have any grandkids?

Don: Oh yes, we have six grandkids. They are all smart and funny, just like you two.

Kyo: Oh thanks! Could you write that in a note to the principal for me?

Kate: Oh Kyo! I'm sure Don has way better things to do. But before we go, Don, do you have any advice to help kids know if science would be a good job for them?

Don: Well, there are lots of different kinds of jobs in science. Some adventurous, some quiet. Big breakthroughs don't happen very often. For me, I just enjoy the little things every day. So, you might ask yourself, do I like putting things together, having an experiment come out well, finding out little unexpected things? If you do, you will enjoy science.

Kate: Well, that might be me!

Kyo: Well, our time is up for now. Thank for being with us today, Don.

Don: I've enjoyed it. Thanks for inviting me.

Kyo: Bye everybody! See you next time on Space Place Live.

End of show