December 7, 2005

Japan Space Probe May Have Missed Asteroid Samples

TOKYO -- A Japanese space probe that landed on the surface of an asteroid last month may have failed in its mission to collect rock samples that could give clues to the origin of the solar system, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said on Wednesday.

The agency earlier said the probe, called Hayabusa -- Japanese for "falcon" -- had succeeded in the delicate task, which scientists likened to landing a jumbo jet in a moving Grand Canyon.

The agency said on Wednesday, however, that Hayabusa had touched down on the asteroid, nearly 300 million km (190 million miles) from Earth, but may have failed to shoot a 5 gram (0.18 oz) metal ball toward the surface to collect into a capsule the debris unleashed as a result of the impact.

"We have not been able to confirm data that shows a projectile was normally discharged," the agency said in a statement on the November 26 landing. "We have found out that there is a high possibility that the projectile was not discharged."

The United States and the former Soviet Union brought back samples from the Moon, but this was thought to be the first time that surface material from an asteroid had been collected.

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 touched down twice last month on the surface of the 548 meter (1,800 ft) long potato-shaped asteroid, named Itokawa.

The probe had been scheduled to land in the Australian outback in June 2007 with the capsule containing rock samples.

Asteroids are believed to contain rocks that have remained largely unchanged since the beginnings of the solar system and could thus offer valuable information about its origins.

Information about their structure could also help 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.