Image: Asteroid
This view of the asteroid Itokawa was captured by Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft on Saturday from a distance of about 1,640 feet (500 meters). The probe's shadow can be seen as a dark mark on the asteroid's surface.
updated 11/26/2005 12:46:58 PM ET 2005-11-26T17:46:58

A Japanese space probe made history on Saturday when it landed on the surface of an asteroid and then collected rock samples that could give clues to the origin of the solar system.

The probe, called Hayabusa — Japanese for "falcon" — succeeded in the delicate task, which scientists likened to landing a jumbo jet in a moving Grand Canyon. It was its second and final attempt.

After analyzing data transmitted from the unmanned probe, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, said Hayabusa had touched down on the asteroid, nearly 190 million miles (300 million kilometers) from Earth.

The probe then shot a 0.18-ounce (5-gram) metal ball towards the surface at a speed of 670 mph (1,080 kilometers per hour), collecting into a capsule the debris unleashed as a result of the impact, JAXA officials said.

"I am delighted to hear that it has collected the samples. It is the world's first such feat and it will contribute greatly to mankind's exploration of space," Science and Technology Minister Iwao Matsuda said in a statement.

The United States and the former Soviet Union have brought back samples from the moon in the past, but this is the first time that surface material from an asteroid has been collected.

JAXA scientists at the main space control center in western Tokyo smiled and let out cheers after confirming the successful landing.

Japan's space program has had a shaky record and has recently been overshadowed by China's success in carrying out manned spaceflights — something Japan has never attempted.

Last Sunday, after a voyage of two and a half years, Hayabusa made its first touchdown on the surface of the 1,798-foot-long (548-meter-long) potato-shaped asteroid, named Itokawa.

It remained there for 30 minutes, but had failed to drop the equipment for collecting surface material.

JAXA officials had said Saturday's attempt would be the final one, as Hayabusa did not have enough fuel for another attempt and would have to head back to Earth.

The probe's capsule containing the samples is due to land in the Australian outback in June 2007.

Asteroids are believed to contain rocks that have remained largely unchanged since the early days of the solar system and could thus offer valuable information about its origins. Information about their structure could also be vital if an asteroid were found to be on a collision course with the earth.

The asteroid is named after pioneering Japanese rocket scientist Hideo Itokawa.

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