Source Pravda.Ru

Japan: space probe nears asteroid, but touchdown still unconfirmed

A Japanese research probe moved within meters (yards) of an asteroid on Sunday, but hours later officials were still analyzing its data and it remained unclear whether it had successfully landed to collect surface samples, Japan's space agency said.

The Hayabusa probe, which botched a rehearsal earlier this month, is on a mission to collect samples from the asteroid during a brief landing and then bring them back to Earth.

Hayabusa moved to 40 meters (130 feet) above the potato-shaped asteroid Itokawa and then dropped a small ball-shaped telemeter as a touchdown target before descending further to 17 meters (56 feet) _ the last point at which JAXA has confirmed its location, JAXA spokesman Tatsuo Oshima said.

"We are able to exchange signals with Hayabusa, so we will be able to confirm the results as soon as we go over more data and analyze it," Oshima said.

A rehearsal was aborted earlier this month when the spacecraft had trouble finding a landing spot, and a small robotic lander deployed from the probe was lost. Hayabusa also had an earlier problem with one of its three gyroscopes which was later repaired.

Hayabusa was launched in May 2003 and has until early December before it must leave orbit and begin its 290 million-kilometer (180 million-mile) journey home. It is expected to return to Earth and land in the Australian Outback in June 2007.

The asteroid is named after Hideo Itokawa, the father of rocket science in Japan, and is orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. It is 690 meters (2,300 feet) long and 300 meters (1,000 feet) wide and has a gravitational pull of only one-one-hundred-thousandth of Earth's, which makes landing a probe there difficult.

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.

Examining asteroid samples is expected to help unlock secrets of how celestial bodies were formed because their surfaces are believed to have remained relatively unchanged over the eons, unlike those of larger bodies such the planets or moons, JAXA said.

A NASA probe collected data for two weeks from the Manhattan-sized asteroid Eros in 2001, but did not return with samples, reported AP. P.T.