TOKYO – A Japanese space probe successfully landed and then departed from the surface of an asteroid, despite an initial announcement that the attempt had failed, Japan's space agency said Wednesday.
JAXA officials had said on Sunday that the Hayabusa probe, on a mission to briefly land on the asteroid Itokawa, collect material, and then bring it back to Earth, had failed to touch down after maneuvering within yards of the asteroid's surface.
On Wednesday JAXA said that data sent from Hayabusa confirmed that it had actually landed on the asteroid on Sunday for about half an hour. However, the probe failed to collect material, JAXA said.
Before landing, Hayabusa dropped a small object as a touchdown target from 130 feet above the asteroid and then descended to within 56 feet of the surface, at which point ground control lost contact with the probe for about three hours, JAXA officials said earlier.
But after analyzing data later sent by the probe, the agency confirmed that it landed on the asteroid within about 100 feet of the landing target, JAXA said in a statement.
JAXA Associate Executive Director Yasunori Matogawa said it was the first time that a probe had successfully landed on an asteroid and then taken off.
"I think we did a great job," he said.
He said the probe had moved as far as 62 miles from the asteroid but was now getting closer for a second attempt.
The mission has been troubled by a series of glitches.
A rehearsal was aborted earlier this month when the probe had trouble finding a landing spot, and a small robotic lander deployed from the probe was lost. Hayabusa also suffered a problem with one of its three gyroscopes, but it has since been repaired.
Hayabusa was launched in May 2003 and has until early December before it must leave orbit and begin its 180 million-mile journey home. It is expected to return to Earth and land in the Australian Outback in June 2007.
The asteroid is named after Hideo Itokawa, the father of rocket science in Japan, and is orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. It is 2,300 feet long and 1,000 feet wide and has a gravitational pull of only 1/100,000th of Earth's, which makes landing a probe there difficult.
Examining asteroid samples is expected to help unlock secrets of how celestial bodies were formed because their surfaces are believed to have remained relatively unchanged over the eons, unlike those of larger bodies such the planets or moons, JAXA said.
A NASA probe collected data for two weeks from the Manhattan-sized asteroid Eros in 2001, but did not return with samples.