November 24, 2005

Japan space probe set for new landing on asteroid

TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese space probe on a mission to
bring back the first rock samples from an asteroid is preparing
to make a fresh attempt to land on its target, Japan Aerospace
Exploration Agency (JAXA) officials said on Friday.

The officials said they plan to land the unmanned probe on
the asteroid, nearly 300 200 million miles from earth, shortly
after 7:00 a.m. on Saturday (2200 GMT on Friday).

"It is moving closer and closer to the asteroid. It is
about 20 km (12 miles) from the target site now," a JAXA
official said on Friday morning.

He said the probe would begin its final approach around
10:00 p.m. (1300 GMT) on Friday.

After a voyage of two-and-a-half years, the space probe on
Sunday touched down on the surface of the 548-metre-long
asteroid, called Itokawa, marking the first landing by a
Japanese spacecraft on an extraterrestrial body. It remained
there for 30 minutes but failed to drop the equipment for
collecting surface material.

Asteroids, unlike larger objects such as the moon, are
believed to contain rocks that have remained largely unchanged
since the early days of the solar system and could thus offer
valuable information about its origins.

Information about their structure could also be vital if an
asteroid were found to be on a collision course with the earth.

The probe, called Hayabusa (Japanese for "falcon"), has
already sent back detailed images of the asteroid, which
Japanese media noted looks like a potato.

In a photograph published on JAXA Web site, the
probe's shadow can be made out on Itokawa's surface.

Itokawa is named after pioneering Japanese rocket scientist
Hideo Itokawa.