Image: Hayabusa
An artist's conception shows the Hayabusa probe near asteroid Itokawa, with the probe's shadow visible near the right edge of the asteroid.
updated 11/21/2005 4:08:44 PM ET 2005-11-21T21:08:44

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

Communications between the Hayabusa probe and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, have returned to normal after the vessel inexplicably stopped just yards from the asteroid Itokawa on Sunday.

The probe, which also botched a rehearsal earlier this month, is on a mission to land on the asteroid briefly, collect material, then bring that material back to Earth.

Officials will analyze data from the probe Tuesday to find out what went wrong in Sunday's attempt. A second landing attempt is planned for as early as Friday, according to JAXA spokesman Toshihisa Horiguchi.

On Sunday, Hayabusa dropped a small object as a touchdown target from 130 feet (40 meters) above the asteroid and then descended to 56 feet (17 meters), according to JAXA.

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

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

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

The probe's current distance from the asteroid was not immediately known, Horiguchi said. Officials earlier said the probe was believed to have retreated as far as 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the asteroid.

The mission has been troubled by a series of glitches.

The 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, 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.

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