Hayabusa Coming Home Three Years Late

Japan's space agency will delay until 2010 the return of a star-crossed probe sent to collect samples from an asteroid because a thruster problem put the vehicle into an unexpected spin, an agency official said Wednesday.

The Hayabusa probe, now hovering several miles off the surface of the Itokawa asteroid, originally was 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 re-establishing contact with the probe and halting the spin are high, the agency decided to postpone its return because it was unclear 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 about 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 last month and did not even realize the probe had landed until days later — long after it lifted off the asteroid.

Hayabusa made a second landing days later, but experienced trouble with its thruster after takeoff, forcing 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 believed. The probe was to have collected dust particles shot up by the projectile's impact.

If Hayabusa does return to Earth with extraterrestrial 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.