Tokyo (AFP) Dec 07, 2005
A Japanese spacecraft is likely to have failed in its landmark mission to collect the first-ever samples from an asteroid, and also faces trouble returning to Earth, the space program said Wednesday.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency had earlier said the Hayabusa probe "most probably" succeeded in gathering dust from the Itokawa asteroid, 290 million kilometers (180 million miles) from Earth, in late November.
"But now we found that the possibility is very high that a metal bullet to collect samples was actually not fired," said an official of the agency, which operates the probe.
"And therefore possibilities are also very high that Hayabusa has failed to collect samples," the official said, adding the agency still had a "slim" hope the probe may have caught some dust.
The unmanned six-meter (20-foot) craft was supposed to begin returning to Earth in mid-December with samples but has a problem with one of its thrusters.
The space agency must wait for another three years if the probe misses a planned departure time in mid-December, when the distance between Earth and the asteroid is ideal.
Even if the return trip can be attempted again in three years, it is not certain if the battery of Hayabusa can be still used, officials said.
"Hayabusa is now temporarily maintaining its proper position with an emergency booster," the official said. "We won't give up our hope as long as there is a possibility."
The expedition is aimed at helping scientists learn more about how the solar system was created. It could also provide information about asteroids in case of the need to deflect a celestial object on a collision course with Earth.
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.
The mission was all the more difficult because the potato-shaped Itokawa asteroid -- 540 meters (1,782 feet) long and 270 meters wide at the larger end -- is revolving and has very low gravity, making it tough for Hayabusa to land on the jagged surface.
At a distance from Earth equal to half the distance to the Moon, the capsule was supposed to detach from the probe and then touch down in the Australian Outback, bringing the samples from the asteroid with it.
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. 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 plans to launch two rockets in February next year to send up weather and multi-purpose satellites.
Source: Agence France-Presse
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Hayabusa Becomes The Little Spacecraft That Could
Moffett Field CA (SPX) Dec 01, 2005
With a maneuver that scientists compared to landing a jumbo jet in a moving Grand Canyon, Japan's asteroid explorer, Hayabusa, touched down on the surface of the asteroid Itokawa Saturday for the second time in a week, and this time it successfully collected a sample of the surface soils, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency announced several hours after its bird had flown.
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