Image: Itokawa
During the Hayabusa probe's approach to the asteroid Itokawa early Sunday, it sent back this picture of the space rock, with the spacecraft's shadow visible on a smooth spot.
updated 11/20/2005 1:37:39 PM ET 2005-11-20T18:37:39

A Japanese research probe failed to touch down on an asteroid Sunday after developing trouble just yards away from the surface, Japan's space agency said.

The Hayabusa probe, which botched a rehearsal landing earlier this month, was on a mission to touch down on the asteroid briefly, collect material, then bring those samples back to Earth.

When Hayabusa was 130 feet (40 meters) above the asteroid Itokawa, it dropped a small object as a touchdown target, then descended to 56 feet (17 meters), said officials from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA. At that point, ground control lost contact with the probe for about three hours, the officials said.

"Hayabusa reached extremely close, but could not make the landing," said JAXA spokesman Toshihisa Horiguchi, adding that the reason for the failure was unknown.

The probe switched to auto-control, storing data about itself and later transmitting it to ground control to be analyzed.

The exact location of the probe was unknown, Horiguchi said, but it was believed to be within 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the asteroid. Officials plan to make a second landing attempt on Friday.

JAXA officials took some consolation from indications that the touchdown target, at least, had reached the asteroid. Along with its signal transmission gear, the softball-sized object held aluminum sheets etched with the names of nearly 880,000 space enthusiasts from 149 countries.

"We are almost certain that the target marker reached the surface of Itokawa," JAXA said on its Web site.

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

A rehearsal was aborted earlier this month when it 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 (288 million-kilometer) 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 (700 meters) long and 1,000 feet (300 meters) wide and has a gravitational pull only one-100,000th of Earth's, which makes landing a probe there difficult.

Looking back, looking forward
Japan was the fourth country to launch a satellite, in 1972, and announced earlier this year a major project to send its first astronauts into space and set up a base on the moon by 2025.

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.

This report includes additional information from

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