Japanese Asteroid Lander to Make Second Try

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A Japanese space probe is heading back toward an asteroid for a second landing attempt after failing to touch down over the weekend, officials say.

Communications between the Hayabusa probe and Japan's space agency, JAXA, have returned to normal after the vessel inexplicably stopped short of the asteroid and lost contact with ground control over the weekend, the officials said Monday.

The probe is on a mission to land briefly on the asteroid Itokawa, which is about 2,300 feet long and 1,000 feet wide and located almost 180 million miles from Earth. The spacecraft will then collect material and return to Earth.

Officials Tuesday will analyze data transmitted by the spacecraft to find out what went wrong over the weekend. A second landing attempt is planned for as early as Friday, JAXA spokesman Toshihisa Horiguchi said.

On Sunday, the probe dropped a small object as a touchdown target from 130 feet above the asteroid and then descended to 56 feet, according to JAXA.

At that point, ground control lost contact with the probe for about three hours, JAXA officials said.

"We're not so discouraged," JAXA Associate Executive Director Yasunori Matogawa said. "The fact that the probe went so close in itself is a major achievement, and it also showed we've overcome the past problems."

The probe's current distance from the asteroid was not immediately known, Horiguchi said. Officials said earlier the probe was believed to have retreated as far as 62 miles from the asteroid.

The Hayabusa mission has been troubled by a series of glitches.

A rehearsal earlier this month was aborted 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, which has since been repaired.

Hayabusa was launched in May 2003 and has until early December before it must leave orbit and begin its journey home. It is expected to return to Earth and land in the Australian Outback in June 2007.