Japan's space agency aims to conduct second landing attempt on asteroid

Japan's space agency is aiming to conduct a second landing attempt on an asteroid as early as this week despite a failed attempt over the weekend, agency officials said Monday. The Hayabusa probe failed to touch down on the asteroid Itokawa Sunday after maneuvering within meters (yards) to collect surface samples.

The probe, which botched a rehearsal earlier this month, is on a mission to briefly land on the asteroid, collect material, then bring it back to Earth.

Officials were still analyzing data from the probe to find out what went wrong in Sunday's attempt, according to Atsushi Wako, spokesman for JAXA.

He said that the agency wants to conduct a second attempt as early as Friday as scheduled. "We are trying to figure out what to do using the data from Hayabusa," he said.

On Sunday, when Hayabusa was 40 meters (130 feet) above the asteroid Itokawa, it dropped a small object as a touchdown target, then descended to 17 meters (56 feet), according to JAXA.

At that point, ground control lost contact with the probe for about three hours, JAXA officials said.

The probe switched to auto-control, storing data about itself and later transmitting it to ground control to be analyzed.

As of Monday, officials were trying to calculate the exact location of the probe, but it was believed to be within 10-100 kilometers (6-60 miles) of the asteroid, according to Wako.

The mission has been troubled by a series of glitches.

A rehearsal was aborted earlier this month when it had trouble finding a landing spot, and a small robotic lander deployed from the probe was lost. Hayabusa also suffered a problem with one of its three gyroscopes, but it has since been 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 1/100,000th 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, reports the AP. I.L.

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