Japan space agency to delay return of asteroid probe

Japan's space agency will delay until 2010 the return of a star-crossed space probe sent to collect samples from an asteroid after a thruster problem put the probe into an unexpected spin, an agency official said Wednesday. The Hayabusa probe, now hovering several kilometers off the surface of the Itokawa asteroid, was originally expected to return to earth in June 2007, said Yashiro Kiyotaka, public affairs director at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA.

The agency had until Dec. 10 to start the return procedure, but a thruster problem sent the probe into a spin, causing it to lose contact with JAXA, Yashiro said. While the prospects for reestablishing contact with the probe and halting the spin are high, the agency decided to postpone its return because it wasn't clear how long those procedures would take, he said.

Under JAXA's new schedule, the probe will begin its return to earth in early 2007 and arrive around June 2010, Yashiro said.

JAXA has experienced a series of problems with Hayabusa since the probe neared its destination. Launched in May 2003, the probe's mission was to land on Itokawa and collect samples to bring back to earth.

However, JAXA lost contact with the probe during a faulty touchdown in mid-November this year and didn't even realize the probe had landed until days later, long after it had lifted off. Hayabusa made a second landing later in the month, but experienced trouble with its thruster after taking off that forced JAXA to shut down the ship's engines.

Furthermore, data from the probe did not show that the vessel had fired a metal projectile onto the asteroid's surface during its landing as previously thought. The probe was to have collected the dust particles shot up by the projectile's impact, reports the AP. I.L.

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