Japanese space probe may not have collected asteroid samples

A Japanese space probe thought to have landed on an asteroid last month may not have collected surface samples, calling into question the success of Japan's unprecedented mission to bring the extraterrestrial material back to Earth, an official said Wednesday. Data from the Hayabusa probe, now hovering several (kilometers) miles from the Itokawa asteroid, did not indicate that the vessel had fired metal projectiles onto the asteroid's surface during its landing as previously thought, said Seiji Oyama of Japan's space agency, JAXA. Now the agency will not know if Hayabusa collected surface samples until the probe returns to Earth, according to Oyama. Hayabusa's return is set for June 2007, but a technical glitch could further delay its arrival.

JAXA had announced on Nov. 26 that Hayabusa appeared to have touched down for a few seconds on Itokawa, about 290 million kilometers (180 million miles) from Earth, firing two metal projectiles to collect the dust that was kicked up before lifting off again to transmit data to mission controllers.

The probe experienced trouble with its thruster after taking off from Itokawa, forcing JAXA to shut down the ship's engines.

The agency has until December 10 to fix the problem before the probe must start its journey back to Earth. Any delay would make a return by June 2007 unlikely, because the Hayabusa's orbit around the sun would take it away from Earth for two years.

If the Hayabusa does return to Earth with extraterritorial material, it would be the first successful mission to return asteroid samples to Earth, JAXA said. The 2001 NASA probe of the asteroid Eros did not collect surface samples, reports the AP. I.L.

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