Japan’s Asteroid Probe Cleared For Landing Attempt
A close-up on one of the various spots the Hayabusa probe is surveying on the asteroid Itokawa for a prospective landing site.

Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft is on track to attempt a sampling of asteroid Itokawa on November 19.

In a rescheduled practice run on November 9, the craft has approached within 230 feet (70 meters) of the asteroid during a descent test that verified the probe's guidance and navigation functions.

Engineers handling the Hayabusa spacecraft have clarified the issues that led to the cancellation of a November 4 landing rehearsal. An onboard navigation computer detected anomalous information during the practice run. The problem resulted in an abort command being transmitted to the probe by Earth controllers, thereby stopping the rehearsal. Subsequently, the spacecraft fired its chemical engines and started ascent, backing away from the asteroid.

Mission officials are now prepared to carry out a landing at the "Muses Sea" site, performing sampling tasks on both November 19 and another touchdown on November 25, according to the web site of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), a space science research division arm of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Return samples

Hayabusa is now ready for its historic attempt to gather and return asteroid specimens to Earth.

Imagery taken by Hayabusa has been used to target the craft to a touchdown location on asteroid Itokawa. One newly released image shows the shadow of the spacecraft cast upon the asteroid's surface.

Japan's Hayabusa roared off into space from Japan's Kagoshima Space Center on May 9, 2003. The spacecraft arrived at its asteroid target on September 12 of this year.

Not only is Hayabusa equipped to collect samples of the asteroid for return to Earth. A tiny robot will hop about Itokawa and relay pictures from the space rock's surface.

Plans call for the probe's return capsule carrying asteroid specimens to return to Earth in June 2007, landing by parachute in a remote desert spot in Woomera, Australia.