November 4, 2005

Japan Cancels Practice of Asteroid Landing

TOKYO (AP) - Japan has canceled the rehearsal of a planned landing on an asteroid millions of miles away between Earth and Mars, but has not ruled out collecting samples from the asteroid's surface later this month, the country's space agency said Friday.

The Hayabusa probe, launched in May 2003, was to make a brief landing to retrieve surface samples from the asteroid, after hovering around it for three months.

Junichiro Kawaguchi of JAXA, the Japanese space agency, said the probe moved to within 700 yards of the asteroid but then lost the ability to identify its target area on the surface.

Kawaguchi, the project manager for the mission, said the probe has been functioning properly since, but that a date for the probe to collect samples has not been determined. He said the probe must leave orbit in early December to return to Earth.

The asteroid, about 180 million miles away, is only 2,300 feet long and 1,000 feet wide. It is known as Itokawa, named after Hideo Itokawa, the father of rocket science in Japan.

JAXA, Japan's space agency, has said Hayabusa is to be the world's first two-way trip to an asteroid. A NASA probe collected data for two weeks from the surface of the Manhattan-sized asteroid Eros in 2001, but did not return with physical samples.

Despite a glitch with one of Hayabusa's three gyroscopes, the mission had been largely mishap-free. The probe is set to return to Earth and land in the Australian outback in June 2007.

Japan was the fourth country to launch a satellite, in 1972, and announced earlier this year a major project to send its first astronauts into space and set up a base on the moon by 2025.