November 26, 2005

Japan probe lands on asteroid

By George Nishiyama

TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese space probe made history on
Saturday when it landed on the surface of an asteroid and then
collected rock samples that could give clues to the origin of
the solar system.

The probe, called Hayabusa -- Japanese for "falcon" --
succeeded in the delicate task which scientists have likened to
landing a jumbo jet in a moving Grand Canyon. It was its second
and final attempt.

After analyzing data transmitted from the unmanned probe,
the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said Hayabusa had
touched down on the asteroid, nearly 300 million km (190
million miles) from Earth.

The probe then shot a 5-gramme (0.18 oz) metal ball toward
the surface at a speed of 1,080 kph (670 mph), collecting into
a capsule the debris unleashed as a result of the impact, JAXA
officials said.

"I am delighted to hear that it has collected the samples.
It is the world's first such feat and it will contribute
greatly to mankind's exploration of space," Science and
Technology Minister Iwao Matsuda said in a statement.

The United States and the former Soviet Union have brought
back samples from the Moon in the past, but it is the first
time that surface material from an asteroid has been collected.

JAXA scientists at its main space control center in western
Tokyo smiled and let out cheers after confirming the successful

Hayabusa has already sent back detailed images of the
asteroid. In a photograph published on JAXA Web site, the
probe's shadow can be made out on its surface.

Japan's space program has had a shaky record and has
recently been overshadowed by China's success in carrying out
manned space flights -- something Japan has never attempted.

After a voyage of 2- years, Hayabusa on Sunday had touched
down on the surface of the 548 meter-long potato-shaped
asteroid, named Itokawa, marking the first landing by a
Japanese spacecraft on an extraterrestrial body.

It remained there for 30 minutes, but had failed to drop
the equipment for collecting surface material.

JAXA officials had said Saturday's attempt would be the
final one as Hayabusa did not have enough fuel for another
attempt and would have to head back to Earth.

The probe's capsule containing the samples is due to land
in the Australian outback in June 2007.

Asteroids 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 asteroid is named after pioneering Japanese rocket
scientist Hideo Itokawa.