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Asteroid probe’s return delayed 3 years

A Japanese space probe attempting to bring back rock samples from an asteroid will likely stay in space for three years longer than planned.
This view of the asteroid Itokawa was captured by Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft on Nov. 26 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.
This view of the asteroid Itokawa was captured by Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft on Nov. 26 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.ISAS / JAXA
/ Source: Reuters

A Japanese space probe launched in an attempt to bring back the first ever rock samples from an asteroid will likely stay in space for three years longer than planned, Japan's space agency said Wednesday.

Scientists at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, were initially jubilant after Hayabusa, whose name means "falcon" in Japanese, apparently succeeded in landing twice on the asteroid Itokawa nearly 186 million miles (300 million kilometers) from Earth last month.

After examining data from the unmanned probe, however, JAXA said last week it had likely failed to collect samples.

JAXA said it had lost control of the direction of the probe due to a fuel leak after the landing, forcing it to delay a plan for Hayabusa to approach Earth and drop a capsule containing the samples into the Australian outback in June 2007.

The return has been put back until June 2010, JAXA said on its Web site.

"We are working on reviving the probe and in the long term, there is still a relatively high chance that we can revive it," the statement said.

But the process would take some time, meaning Hayabusa would likely miss a window of opportunity for moving into the correct orbit for a return to Earth.

A successful mission would have been a boost for Japan's space program, dogged by technical difficulties and recently overshadowed by China's successful launch of two manned space missions.

Scientists believe asteroids contain rocks that have remained largely unchanged since the birth of the solar system and might shed light on its origins.

Information about their structure could also be vital if an asteroid were found to be on a collision course with Earth.