TOKYO – Japan's space agency said Wednesday a spacecraft that landed on an asteroid last week had successfully collected surface samples in an unprecedented mission to bring the extraterrestrial material to Earth.
The space agency, JAXA, previously said the Hayabusa probe appeared to have touched down for a few seconds Saturday on the asteroid, which is about 180 million miles from Earth. It was the probe's second successful landing on the asteroid.
After touching down on the Itokawa asteroid, the probe fired two metal projectiles into its surface, collected the dust that was kicked up and lifted off, JAXA said on its Web site.
The probe landed on the asteroid's surface for 30 minutes on Nov. 20, but it failed to collect material, the agency has said.
"We could prove an epoch-making planetary exploration through autonomous navigation and guidance, and stand foremost in the world in deep space exploration technology," JAXA official Junichiro Kawaguchi said.
Hayabusa was launched in May 2003. In addition to recovering samples from the asteroid, it is testing a new type of ion engine that uses an electric field to accelerate positive ions to a high velocity.
The probe swung by Earth to use gravity to accelerate toward the asteroid.
The Hayabusa mission is part of Japan's efforts to expand its space exploration program after setbacks in recent years in its efforts to explore the moon and Mars. Earlier this year, JAXA said it would send its first astronauts into space and establish a moon base by 2025.
However, the agency said the Hayabusa has had trouble with its thruster system. That was the latest setback in Japan's attempt to complete the world's first two-way trip to an asteroid, following earlier problems with the probe's gyroscopes and two botched practice landings.
After lifting off the asteroid, the probe began shaking due to a gas leak from a thruster, which continued through Tuesday. Communication was also briefly lost but restored earlier Tuesday.
JAXA said it will take some time to fix the problem before a December deadline for the probe to start its journey back to Earth for a June 2007 landing. Kyodo News agency has said failure to remedy that glitch may make the probe's return impossible.
If all goes well with Hayabusa, it will be the first time a probe returns to Earth with samples from an asteroid, JAXA said. A NASA probe collected data for two weeks from the asteroid Eros in 2001, but it did not return with samples.