TOKYO (AP) - A Japanesespacecraft that landed on an asteroid to collect surface samples and bring themback to Earth for analysis has developed trouble with its thruster system, theJapan Aerospace Exploration Agency said Tuesday.
The problem is the latestfacing Japan's attempt to complete the world's first two-way trip to anasteroid, following earlier problems with the probe's gyroscopes and twobotched practice landings.
TheHayabusa probe appeared to have touched down Saturday, just long enough tocollect powder from the asteroid's surface and lift off again. But it soonbegan shaking due to a gas leak from a thruster, which continued throughTuesday, Japan's space agency, JAXA, said in a statement on its Web site.Communication was also briefly lost but restored earlier in the day.
"Judging from the currentcircumstances, a certain amount of time will be needed to resume the probe'soperations,'' JAXA said.
The agency is trying to fixthe problem by a December deadline to begin its 290 million kilometers (180million miles) journey home. Kyodo News agency said failure to remedy theglitch may make the probe's return impossible.
Hayabusa was launched inMay 2003. On top of recovering samples from the asteroid, named Itokawa, theprobe is also testing a new type of ion engine that uses an electric field toaccelerate positive ions to a high velocity. It also swung by Earth for agravity assist that propelled the probe toward Itokawa.
The Hayabusa mission ispart of Japan's efforts to expand its space exploration program. Earlier thisyear, JAXA said it would send its first astronauts into space and set up a baseon the moon by 2025.
But the agency has recentlysuffered a series of setbacks. A moon probe originally scheduled for launch in2005 has been delayed, while the agency abandoned a mission to Mars two yearsago after a probe moved off course.
If all goes well withHayabusa, it will be the first time a probe returns to Earth with samples froman asteroid, according to JAXA. A NASA probe collected data for two weeks fromthe asteroid Eros in 2001, but did not return with samples.