A Japanese probe is readying itself to make a fresh and final attempt to land on the surface of an asteroid and pluck up rock samples, a delicate task that officials said was like trying to land a jet in the Grand Canyon.
The space probe, called Hayabusa — Japanese for “falcon” — will make history if it successfully returns to earth with the world’s first samples from an asteroid.
Officials from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, said they plan to land the unmanned probe on the asteroid, nearly 200 million miles (300 million kilometers) from earth, shortly after 7 a.m. Japan standard time on Saturday (5 p.m. ET Friday).
“The surface of Itokawa is actually much more rugged than we’d thought,” Hiroki Matsuo, commissioner of Japan’s Space Activities Commission, told a news conference. “It’s been said that trying to land there is like trying to land a jumbo jet in a moving Grand Canyon.”
After a voyage of two and a half years, the space probe on Sunday touched down on the surface of the 1,798-foot-long (548-meter-long) asteroid, marking the first landing by a Japanese spacecraft on an extraterrestrial body.
It remained there for 30 minutes but failed to drop the equipment for collecting surface material.
Matsuo said Saturday’s attempt would be the final one, as Hayabusa would not have enough fuel for another attempt and would have to head back to Earth.
“Whether it has enough to return is a concern,” he said.
Asteroids, unlike larger objects such as the moon, 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.
Hayabusa has already sent back detailed images of the asteroid, which Japanese media noted looks like a potato.
In a photograph published on JAXA Web site, the probe’s shadow can be made out on Itokawa’s surface.
Itokawa is named after pioneering Japanese rocket scientist Hideo Itokawa.