Japanese probe lands on asteroid again and apparently takes samples

November 26, 2005

Asteroid Sample-return Spacecraft HAYABUSA Arrives Itokawa
A Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft successfully landed on a far-away asteroid Saturday for a second time and almost certainly collected the first-ever samples from such a celestial body, Japan's space agency said.

The Hayabusa probe, which successfully touched down on the rotating Itokawa asteroid last Sunday but failed to collect material, was set to try again.

The Hayabusa probe is on a landmark mission to bring back material samples from the Itokawa asteroid 290 million kilometers (180 million miles) from Earth to help scientists learn more about how the solar system was created.

It could also provide vital information about the composition and structure of asteroids for any future efforts to deflect a celestial object on a collision course with Earth.

The unmanned craft fired a small metal ball at the asteroid's surface to stir up material for collection and the operation went "without failure," a spokesman for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said.

An artist\'s impression of the Hayabusa probe
"As this asteroid was estimated to have emerged roughly 4.6 billion years ago, when the solar system was created, the samples could be something like fossils of the solar system," he added.

Although researchers will not know for sure whether it picked up surface material until the craft returns to Earth in 2007 -- after travelling a total of two billion kilometres -- they said they were confident it worked.

"I'm sure we could collect samples," said project manager Junichiro Kawaguchi, although he added that he needed more circumstantial evidence to say with certainty that the attempt was successful.

"We have overcome the biggest challenge in the project," he added. The mission was all the more difficult because the potato-shaped Itokawa asteroid -- 540 meters (590 yards) long and 270 meters wide on the larger end -- is revolving and has very low gravity, making it tough for Hayabusa to land on a targeted site such as a flat area on the jagged surface.

However, the six-meter probe successfully touched down at 7:07 am Japanese local time (2207 GMT Friday) and its computer system shot the metal ball to collect samples as programmed before taking off again, said JAXA official Yasunori Matoba.

"The project team members were very delighted to have seen all the procedures of collecting samples apparently ended without any problem," Kawaguchi said.

The probe had already touched down on the asteroid on the previous Sunday -- the first time that a space probe has landed and departed from such a celestial body -- but failed to collect material on that occasion as it temporarily lost contact with Earth for technical reasons.

Hayabusa was launched in May 2003 with a budget of 12.7 billion yen (just over 100 million dollars) and is scheduled to return to Earth in June 2007.

At a distance from Earth equal to half the distance to the Moon, the capsule containing samples collected from the asteroid is due to detach from the probe.

After entering the atmosphere at a speed of 12 kilometres per second, heating up to 3,000 degrees C (5,432 degrees F), the capsule is scheduled to land in the Australian desert.

Japan's space program has been eyeing more ambitious projects after its humiliating setback in November 2003 when it had to destroy a rocket carrying a satellite to spy on communist neighbor North Korea shortly after lift-off when one of two rocket boosters failed to separate.

In February, Japan sent a weather satellite into space, its first launch since the 2003 failure.

Japan's Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Kenji Kosaka said the collection of samples "is a world first" and expressed his pleasure at the news of the apparent success.

Copyright 2005 AFP

Explore further: China lunar probe sheds light on the 'dark' side of the moon

Related Stories

Cosmic detective work: Why we care about space rocks

November 8, 2018

The entire history of human existence is a tiny blip in our solar system's 4.5-billion-year history. No one was around to see planets forming and undergoing dramatic changes before settling in their present configuration. ...

Stellar corpse reveals clues to missing stardust

December 21, 2018

Everything around you – your desk, your laptop, your coffee cup – in fact, even you – is made of stardust, the stuff forged in the fiery furnaces of stars that died before our sun was born. Probing the space surrounding ...

Bad weather delays Japan asteroid probe lift off

November 28, 2014

Bad weather will delay the launch of a Japanese space probe on a six-year mission to mine a distant asteroid, just weeks after a European spacecraft's historic landing on a comet captivated the world.

Recommended for you

Female golden snub-nosed monkeys share nursing of young

February 21, 2019

An international team of researchers including The University of Western Australia and China's Central South University of Forestry and Technology has discovered that female golden snub-nosed monkeys in China are happy to ...

When does one of the central ideas in economics work?

February 20, 2019

The concept of equilibrium is one of the most central ideas in economics. It is one of the core assumptions in the vast majority of economic models, including models used by policymakers on issues ranging from monetary policy ...

In colliding galaxies, a pipsqueak shines bright

February 20, 2019

In the nearby Whirlpool galaxy and its companion galaxy, M51b, two supermassive black holes heat up and devour surrounding material. These two monsters should be the most luminous X-ray sources in sight, but a new study using ...

Research reveals why the zebra got its stripes

February 20, 2019

Why do zebras have stripes? A study published in PLOS ONE today takes us another step closer to answering this puzzling question and to understanding how stripes actually work.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.